Saturday, May 14, 2016

Say Cheese Please!

"Un repas sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un œil". ("A meal without cheese is like a beauty who is missing an eye"). So wrote the epicure and gastronome,  Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who died in 1826.  It's a sentiment that I agree with completely!  One of the great pleasures of being here in France is to indulge every day in the never-ending choices that you find in your local fromagerie. My neighborhood cheese shop, La Fermette, is wonderful, but sometimes it's fun to go to the other side of town and take a look at what else is out there. 

And a chance to accompany Debbi Baron -- cheese maven extraordinaire -- and a group of AWG chums on a tour of Griffon, in the 7th arr. was not to be missed. Griffon opened its doors in 2012, under the guidance and ownership of Claire Griffon. By 2015, the French magazine, L'Express, named it one of the ten best cheese shops in Paris.  In 2016, Claire Griffon was awarded "Fromager of the Year" by the gastronomical guide, Pudlo.

Looking through the window from the street, you might be forgiven for thinking it is just a small, narrow shop, with shelves running down one side, and more displays at the end and on the right hand side. But looks can be deceptive, as we were about to find out.

Madame Griffon is on leave with a new baby, but there were several young members of her staff on hand to talk with us. Some were busy bringing cheeses up from the caves, where they had been stored Sunday and Monday, when the shop is closed.

We learned about the "spécialités de la maison", where Claire Griffon adds ingredients to an existing cheese. Here, she has soaked softly stewed apples in Calvados, then made a sandwich of two small rounds of Camembert de Normandie.

In this Nougat de Vieux Gouda, she has introduced pistachios and dried fruits that transforms it almost into a fruit cake!

This one really caught my eye -- a hollowed out cheese rind "basket" is filled with mouth-watering, bite-sized chunks of Tommette de Brebis, a sheep cheese from the Pays Basque, at 48 euros a kilo hardly a bargain, but so pretty and super tasty!

The left side of the shop is one long row of cheeses, organized by family, starting with the Chèvres (goat cheeses) and running through the soft Bries and Camemberts, Saint-Marcellins and Saint-Féliciens and on to the so-called "stinky" cheeses like the Époisses and Roqueforts.

France's most popular cheese, the Comté, can take up to 32 months to age. Produced in the French-Comté region of Eastern France (near the Swiss border), the cheese is made in flat circular discs that can be as much as 28" in diameter and can weigh up to 110 lbs! During the aging process, they must be turned frequently. Formerly, this was done by hand by highly muscled workers -- now, of course, there are machines to take care of the process.

As with most things in France, there are strict rules in the world of cheese making. For the Comté brand, only milk from either the Montbéliarde (see "Tilly" above) or French Simmental cows is allowed. Further, there must be no more than 1.3 cows per hectare of pasture! Only a very limited amount of fertilization is permitted, and cows must be fed fresh natural feed -- no silage! Oh, and the milk must be raw. Whew, it's a miracle we can buy it so cheaply in our local markets.

Similar rules come with the production of my friend Anne-Marie's favorite cheese, Époisses. In this case, the Vache Brune is one of only three races of cow whose raw milk is allowed.  The cheese is named for the village in Burgundy, where it was first made by a group of Cistercian monks from  l'Abbaye Citaux in the 1600s. It stayed in production long after the monks left, handed down from family to family, but by the mid-20th century had almost been forgotten. Happily, in the 1950's, a local family -- Robert and Simone Berthaut -- mobilized dairy farmers in the region, and almost single handedly revived it. Today, they are the main producers. Under the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Côntrolée) rules, the cheese may only be made in the Côte d'Or, Haute-Marne and Yonne departments of Burgundy.

At Madame Griffon's fromagerie, it is the small artisinal Maronnier family's Époisses that is on display, one of only four producers today. As the cheese ages over six weeks, it is washed three or four times a week with a mixture of brine and a rough brandy, called "marc", and carefully brushed so that the "good" bacteria is evenly spread over the surface. This produces the golden rind covering, and its classification as a "washed rind cheese". The result is a pungent, nutty, salty flavor that those of us who love stinky cheeses would amost die for! Napoleon was reputed to be a big fan.

Right above the Époisses display our eyes (and our noses) were drawn to another "King of Cheeses", the mighty Roquefort! Considered one of France's elite fromages, Roquefort cheese dates back to ancient Rome. Julius Caesar loved it, as did Emperor Charlemagne. And in 1411, Charles VI decreed that the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon -- a small town in the Aveyron department of southern France -- would be the only place where the cheese could be aged. A decree of affinage that continues today.

Roquefort comes from the raw milk of the Lacaune sheep, with a couple of other breeds also allowed. The milk has a high butterfat and protein content, perfect for cheese making! The cheese itself is white, crumbly, has a distinctively sharp flavor and veins of blue mold running through it.  That mold comes from the soil in the Combalou caves. Cheese makers leave loaves of wheat bread in the caves for about eight weeks until they are completely consumed by mold. The inside of the bread is dried into a powder which is then introduced into the cheese making process. The wheels of cheese are returned to the caves for aging, during which time "needling" takes place. Metal tines are poked into the cheese, making tiny holes , that allow air to enter and feed the mold, creating the striations of blue -- giving the Roquefort its salty, tangy taste.

By now, our mouths are watering like crazy. Time to begin tasting! Our guide has set out two trays, this one, starting in the upper left, has a Selles-sur-Cher goat cheese from the centre of France, some Roquefort Carles and a Pont-l'Éveque, a soft cheese from Normandy...

...the second tray offered Comté, Tomme de Brebis, and Nougat de Vieux Gouda. Yum!!

As we chomped away, our guide showed us very clearly how NOT to cut a wedge of Brie cheese -- never ever cut the "nose"! No big surprise, but it turns out there are strict rules in France to cutting cheese. As Debbi Baron reminds us in her booklet, "any cheese to be shared must include a part of the crust". So, with a wedge of Brie, you must take long, thin slices that take a tiny bit of the "nose" and get a little wider as you reach the crust.

With a hunk of Comté or Cantal or other cheddar-like cheeses, you would cut a diagonal piece, starting at the bottom and cutting toward the rind.

Oh, and you should use a separate knife for each cheese, so the flavors don't get confused. And don't crowd your cheese plate. And always have an odd number of cheeses on the board!! L'étiquette, toujours l'étiquette!

As we wrapped up our tour, I took a look around at some of the other goodies being offered...

...delicious, crisp wafers, cute little jars of confits...

...the world's best butter from Brittany...

...even some of the Brocciu cheese made only in Corsica, that my friends Marthe and Alain love to serve with fresh berries!

Finally it was time to begin to gather our own selections to take home. This young man weighed them, carefully wrapped them in a film (not saranwrap!), and then a wax backed Griffon paper, before presenting them to each of us in a fancy Griffon shopping bag.

Here's what I served my dinner guests that night:  Roquefort Carles, a little Saint-Marcellin in a cute ceramic crock, a round of Selles-sur-Cher goat cheese, and a hunk of Tomme de Brebis. I know, I know, a little crowded on the plate, not an odd number, and I don't have four small cheese knives. I'll try harder next time!

Bon Appétit!

À bientôt!

(Many thanks to Lynn Loring for several of these photos)

Here's a link to some other Paris delights:


  1. I think I have some Comte in the fridge I now feel the need to eat some! x

  2. L'étiquette, toujours l'étiquette! Finally got to read this blog. Lovely, especially having eaten the cheeses for that dinner! OK, Odd # of cheeses, how to cut your slice and separate knives. Think I have it. Merci