In France, no meal is deemed complete without a bit of cheese. In Switzerland, cheese makes up the majority of traditional Swiss dishes. According to Michel Tournier, French writer and member of the Académie Goncourt,
“Le fromage constitue, avec le pain et le vin, la trinité de la table européenne.”
(Cheese, along with bread and wine, makes up the trinity of the European table.)
Finding a decent cheese shop in or around L’Isle-Jourdain was therefore absolutely mandatory when we moved there at the end of last summer.
In Nantes, where we lived before, the Fromagerie Beillevaire effectively had a monopoly on all things cheesy, so much so that their name became a by-word for “top notch” and every restaurant with as much as a smidgen of ambition advertised not an “assortiment de fromages”, but an “assortiment de fromages Beillevaire”.
France’s South-West takes pride in its food culture. Its population makes a show of rejecting “la malbouffe” (fast food and industrially produced “bad” food), makes a big deal of a few shavings of cured ham, and generally lives up to the cliché of the Frenchman sitting in the shade of a tree with a beret, a bottle of red and a baguette. The Gers, specifically, is synonymous of gastronomy with century-old traditions of foie gras, confit duck, and Armagnac production. The département itself is largely rural and agricultural, with an average density of 30 inhabitants per square kilometre (compared to over 200 hab/km2 in neighbouring Haute-Garonne). Unfortunately, urban shopping habits seems to have invaded even this bastion of the distinctive, the traditional, and the matured…
My local supermarkets pander the usual assortment of shrink-wrapped plastic wedges – some with holes, some without – and most stamped with the dreaded P-word. That’s right: PASTURIZED.
Even trips to the market left my hopes unfulfilled: whereas I enjoy stands that offer only one or two artisan cheeses they make themselves, be it from goat’s, sheep’s or cow’s milk, what I was looking for was a cheese merchant with a large selection of cheeses both local and foreign. I found one stand very expensive, another systematically facing south and sweltering in the sun, a third was simply boring with exclusively young, rubbery cheeses.
I hit paydirt a first time at the market in Samatan, 30km from our house. It’s a very big market which includes a livestock market and a separate area for the sales of force-fed ducks and geese and their specific by-products, such as foie gras and duck hearts. There are several cheese stalls around, but the one that stood out was that of the Fromagerie Mont Royal. Dominique Bouchait, the cheese maker, is what we call a MOF: a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is the highest distinction any artisan can obtain in France. The prestigious competition is held only every four years and has been presided over by culinary superstars like Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse. The chosen few wear a tricolour-stripe collar on their chef whites and are the most respected in their field of expertise, be it cheese or pâtisserie, but the competition also exists for joinery, floral art, and stained glass.
Dominique Bouchait’s cheese stand is exceptional. The local press rave about it and, in my humble opinion, all praise is deserved.
Each cheese is matured to perfection and the variety of textures, colours and smells are a delight. The employees who run the stand know their stuff and know what to advise, hand out slivers of cheese to taste liberally and are busy, busy, busy right until the market is over and they have to pack up for the day. I made a lovely discovery there: an Italian sheep’s milk Pecorino Moliterno marbled with black truffle. To die for. I recently drove the 30km to Samatan just for that.
I found an alternative closer to home a few weeks ago when I walked down a tiny street in the old centre of L’Isle-Jourdain and walked past a tiny wine shop beside and equally tiny cheese shop: Côté Fromages. I nearly missed it! When I stepped in, I was immediately enveloped by a cloud of… distinction. I only had a few seconds to look at the neat, clean refrigerated displays before a young woman with smiling eyes stepped out from behind a curtain with little sheep printed on it. The shopkeeper’s name is Céline, and her cheeses are very good.
On top of a wide choice of cheeses that include proper Swiss Appenzeller and an excellent mature Stilton, Céline grates cheese for your fondue, slices it for your raclette, and prepares cheese platters fit for a king for your functions and fêtes de famille. Prices are reasonable, quality is high, and Côté Fromages is an independently-run shop in a world where more and more are chain stores or franchises. She has been running the wine shop next door, La Cave de la Tour in L’Isle-Jourdain, for ten years and opened the cheese shop only last September. And guess what? Her fromage blanc and unpasteurized triple cream come from… Beillevaire!
I got myself a nice piece of Maroilles and a couple of fresh goat’s cheeses today. After all, the 19th century epicurean Brillat Savarin claimed “Un dessert sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un oeil” (dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye…) and we wouldn’t want that now, would we?