If Paris is the city of love, it is because of the cheese. Yes, the people are super hot and the fascinating histories, glorious gothic architecture, and immense contributions to Western art inspire great awe, but this is not love. My experience of the intricate stained-glass windows that make up the walls of Sainte Chapelle, Manet's 'Olympia' at the Musée D’Orsay, and the 6 million elaborately stacked human skeletons that fill the Paris Catacombs made me at once weak, empowered, frustrated, and fulfilled. Love is much harder to pin down, and as far as I'm concerned, it is embodied by stinky fromage.
I had only five non-traveling days to spend in France last week, so I collected and ate as much cheese as possible. I'd never been to France, the world capital of cheese, and I don't know if I will ever have the opportunity to return, so this was a serious mission. By my count, which was admittedly warped by jet lag and wine, at least 16 different cheeses found their way to my fork over the course of the trip. I brought a huge suitcase and packed it less than halfway full so I could fill it with fromage. The shopkeepers at the fromageries were prepared for international cheesemongers like myself and offered to vacuum-seal my pickings.
There is no way to classify French cheese altogether; there are worlds beyond the bries, Camemberts, and chevres, though each of those staples offer both nuanced and wholly different varieties. And that is the beauty of fromage, a diverse magic we wish the U.S. would pursue more vigorously.
We spent the first night at the ridiculously beautiful parsonage-turned-house of my traveling partner's family friends in Bérulle, a tiny village in the countryside about two hours southeast of Paris. I kid you not; the countryside greeted us with a double fucking rainbow, a good omen for the food to come. Before and after the magnificent French meal the hosts prepared using only produce grown in their crazy fantasy-land garden, they served us two different plates of local cheese. Bérulle is so small that "local" here means maybe a block or two away from where we sat. I could taste the cow, which I imagine was beautifully tricolored and had big dark eyes with long, elegant eyelashes. There was a goat cheese, too; the smoothest I'd ever tasted.
A couple of late evenings in Paris, we grabbed a bottle of wine, a baguette, and a small wheel of Camembert from a convenience store to munch on by the Seine, to enjoy the illuminated buttresses and gargoyles of Notre Dame. Locals urged us against buying cheese from these stores ("it's not real cheese!") but what else were we going to get at midnight? What were we supposed to do, not eat cheese? And fuck, it's still good cheese by our comparatively low American standards.
As for acceptable cheese retailers, I found myself particularly drawn to a small fromagerie in Montmartre, near the lines of sex shops (most of which are named "Sexy Shop") that lead to the Moulin Rouge, which, to my disappointment though to no surprise, matched a friend's comparison to the Hard Rock Cafe (sorry, art history). The woman running the cheese shop didn't speak a word of English, and because I don't speak a word of French and there was no English signage, the language barrier made for a thrilling, blind cheese hunt. Among other handsome hunks, I grabbed an ash-dusted pyramid of gorgeous, snow-white chevre, a wheel of decadent, mushroomy Camembert de Normandie (one of the few good Camemberts made with pasteurized milk, meaning I wouldn't risk losing it coming back to the United States), and Calva d'Auge, a creamy cow's milk cheese soaked in sweet apple brandy and coated in walnuts and breadcrumbs—unlike anything I've tried back at home. One night, we ate at a restaurant near the Opera House called Bistro Volnay. Concluding one of the best meals I've ever had—a salmon tartare for starters and guinea fowl with chard gratin (by the way, the French actually know how to make chard delicious)—I ordered the dessert fromage plate, a generous sampling of three Burgundian cheeses aged by Marie Quatrehomme.
So, Marie Quatrehomme. She was the first woman to win the title of "Meilleur Ouvrier de France"—the best worker in the country. But Marie and her godly fromage did not stop there: Last year, this queen was awarded "Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur." She was knighted. For cheese. The fact that someone can be knighted for their cheesing is indicative of the supremacy of fromage as an ancient culinary art.
And indeed, these were a noble breed: the salty Abbaye de Citeaux; the unusually firm, tangy goat Le Charolais; and the creamy, honey-sweet Soumaintrain Berthaut. Altogether it was comparable to jumping off a cliff over a scenic landscape (complete with a double rainbow) and landing immersed in a sea of really expensive, luxurious body butter. This plate was the probably the biggest highlight of the trip, and I must remind you that I visited the largest necropolis in the world and visited a special exhibition at the Musée D'Orsay, "Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910," that included 19th-century porn films and sex toys. Cheese retailers of Baltimore: Please, for me, find a way to bring Madame Quatrehomme's masterpieces into the United States. Go rogue, find a way around our country's oppressive raw-milk laws. Our cheese culture depends on it.
Indulging in such fine cheeses was one of the most romantic experiences of my life (the beautiful five years with my partner are pretty close)—a love affair with the world beyond my home, with which I have maintained a romance for the duration of my life. I'm sorry, Baltimore; I didn't mean to cheat. Forgive me.