There exist more ways to get what one wants, in the mercantile realm, than ever. For many – especially in the most electronically developed countries – this is the lifting of a burden. One can have almost anything, from almost anywhere, free of the time-consuming friction of face-to-face interaction.
Elsewhere, this is viewed less positively. French feet rest heavy on so many cultural brakes that it’s sometimes difficult to see how, amidst epic and often completely arbitrary contrariness about just about everything, these deliberate pressures can lead to desirable outcomes.
Please forgive the tangential subject-skipping in those last two paragraphs, but there’s a point to it. For I am now going to talk about cheese.
At my Parisian apartment’s nearest supermarket, which is generally dismal and harbors a persistent odor of garbage, cheese is behind a rope and requires the beneficence of staff to acquire. Meat? Fish? Sure. But cheese? The stuff is, mostly, already boxed and wrapped. Why must there be a person between me and my brie? I suspect it’s because, to the French, cheese is too important to be left to the proletariat. Also, because that’s just how cheese is sold. Remember: “arbitrary.”
And if one seeks good cheese – the wheels, wedges, and three-dimensional polygons on which the fame of French cheese is justly built – one must go to a specialist. A merchant and affineur, yes, but also a guardian of tradition, a hyper-knowledgeable guide, and a meddling interferer with consumers’ best-laid plans. The thing is, one does not just buy cheese at such an establishment. One enters into a storied negotiation, the outcome of which is not certain until one is standing on the sidewalk, holding a parcel that emanates lusty aromas of biologically active dairy products. Which might be entirely different from what one intended to purchase at entry.
It’s possible to purchase food and drink from French merchants with minimized interpersonal interaction, but the qualitative sacrifice is enormous. To get the good stuff, one must build a relationship…and I use that word deliberately, because the process is not unlike dating. The complexity of the interaction goes well beyond the boundaries of an “I would like”/“we can sell you” exchange of supply and demand. There are interrogations for which one must offer explanations (“when are you going to eat this cheese? for how many people?”) and catalysts (“the bleu d’Auvergne last week was excellent, but I’d like something a little more aggressive”), there are force-feedings (“this is the cheese that you will buy, and this is how you will serve it”), and as a result the simple act of sectioning and wrapping a few pieces of cheese can take the better part of a quarter-hour. But woe betide should this relationship fail to get off the ground, or develop in difficult ways, because product quality will suffer as a result. It is essential to build a positive rapport with a merchant who has consumable goods one desires, and the burden of that interaction is – contrary to American practice – almost entirely on the consumer, not the purveyor.
Here follows a tale of merchant dating failure. And of success. A multi-year love story that has come to full, and gloriously stinky, ripeness.
Marie-Anne Cantin (2009) – The aroma of fame hangs over this rue Cler shop, lingering thick and nearly tactile in the air to either end of its block. Or maybe that’s just the chèvre.
A famous affineuse, a beautiful selection of cheese…why, then, am I about to complain? Because even after a half-dozen visits, each query as to what’s fresh, what’s interesting, what’s seasonal draws the identical droned reply from the tall, patently bored young man that is always – despite my attempts at identifying his off-day – here: “brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Yes, OK, and a first purchase demonstrates that versions thereof sold here are superlative. But there’s a whole room full of cheese, some of which are as yet untasted legends from my reference books. Can’t I try something else?
“Brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Apparently not.
Marie-Anne Cantin (2011) – A year and a half later, the only holdovers on the staff appear to be Madame Cantin herself and her husband (who, on my first visit, scolds me for threatening a pyramid of ash-covered chèvre with the uncontrollable arc of my allegedly wildly-swinging murse). And so, a new attempt at relationship-building is initiated.
This time, it pays off. Suddenly, there’s a lighted and signposted pathway through an oozing world of terroir-specific brie. “Sec” in reference to a goat cheese now actually produces a semi-hard version, not just whichever cylinder or pyramid the shopkeeper happens to put his hand on, and always something different than was offered last week. A full range of creamy rounds and squares, bloomy and washed – the very cheeses that are impossible to acquire legally in the States, and are inevitably past prime when they are available – are systematically offered over the course of two months’ visits. Best of all, a deliriously complex four-year-old Comté, previously extant but not for sale to just anyone (“anyone” being me) suddenly becomes available. Each week, each exchange, is a new adventure in not just selection, but also in escalating warmth. My only regret is that when I come back, I might need to start all over again with a brand new blind date.
There are other sources, as well. One does, on occasion, leave the comfort of a marriageable affineuse for the excitement of a lactic dalliance; this is France, after all. Most of the action on the side comes from a purveyor at the biweekly Grenelle open market that offers a selection of his own goat cheeses from the Loire. His fare tends towards more youthful freshness than is my personal preference, but it’s still a fine and varied array of chèvres. The best is probably his Selles-sur-Cher, which is sold in a range from birth into a creamier era of development, but the ash-dusted fresh rounds and logs are impressive in their own right.
But again, cheese is only part of the act. The rest is his banter with the mostly female market crowd, with whom he relentlessly and shamelessly flirts. (Sometimes unsuccessfully; on my first visit, a middle-aged woman stalks off in anger at his unexpected use of the familiar form, hissing “animal” at him as she harrumphs away. By week four, the familiar is all he’s using in my presence, but then I’m not French and don’t really care about such things.) A good 90% of any commercial transaction with this gentleman is, thus, unrelated to the actual exchange of money for cheese, but rather the chatter than precedes and follows that transaction.
And so, that’s a French cheese transaction. You might not get what you want, exactly, but if all goes well, you’ll get more than you knew you wanted.
Every country has its white zinfandel. A sticky, too-sweet, unstructured, synthetic-tasting Kool-Aid™ wine. France’s is often made from one or both of the cabernets and carries the Anjou appellation, though there are plenty of blushing contenders for the role made elsewhere. I notice, as a frequent renter of apartments and gîtes in various French locales, that when there’s a gift bottle, it’s very often something of this stylistic ilk. Why, I wonder? Perhaps as a result of a guess that it has the broadest potential appeal to all, but especially sundry? Perhaps – though this seems hard to believe based on the evidence – people actually like the stuff?
Well, I don’t. And yes, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth and decide to withhold the lurid neon pink refreshments. But I would love to, landlord by landlord, shift attention to something a little more interesting for both novice and geek tastes. Sweet and fun, sure, but clever as well. A Bugey Cerdon in every pot, maybe? It couldn’t hurt.
Emb. 49125D 2009 Cabernet d’Anjou (Loire) – Sweet synthetic strawberry syrup. It’s wine, but I know this primarily because the label says so. And you have to love the romance and revealed cultural history of the winery’s name. (3/11)
Les Fouleurs de Saint Pons Vin de Pays du Var “Réserve du Cigalon” Rosé (Provence) – Candied berries, a bit hot, thin, and not very interesting. (11/09)
Bernard-Noël Reverdy “Domaine de la Garenne” 2008 Sancerre Rosé (Loire) – Actually, not bad. (I know…lead off with the lavish praise, right?) Dry, with some flattish minerality exposed – something planar and uniform – and a little patina of raspberryishness. Nothing to think about, but quite drinkable while well-chilled. And had I not written this note hot on the drinking’s heels, I’d never have remembered drinking this at all. Meanwhile, that Reverdy family sure is fertile, isn’t it? (11/09)
Renardat-Fache Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Intense strawberry, with one of the best balancing acts between acid, fruit, and sugar I’ve encountered under this label. Fresher for the lack of a trans-Atlantic trip? A better vintage? Or just an artifact of the environmental bonus multiplier of drinking it in Paris, rather than in a Boston suburb? Well…does it matter? Whatever the cause, this is the best bottle of this wine I’ve ever tasted, and I have consumed a lot. (11/09)
Rondeau Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Pure strawberry lifted by raspberry/cranberry volatility. Fun, fun, fun, and no one’s T-Bird is getting taken away. (4/11)