What this country needs is a good five hundred American affineurs!
Hey, I’m just back from France…where I am always gastronomically programmed to seek out three things that are absolutely unparalleled:
1) Oysters (the French obsession with these critters insures superiority all the way from oyster bed to oyster platter)
2) Les abats (offal, another item that needs cultists in a culture to survive)
3) Cheese, which in France is unequivocally the best
Obsession plays a huge role here, as well, in French Fromage World.
Now, I’m not saying we don’t have good cheese in America, both domestic and imported. And I’m not saying that the cheese chain in the U.S. isn’t better than ever, resulting in the best cheese selection I can remember in American shops and restaurants.
But dude…we still ain’t France! Not by a kilometre de campagne!
There are numerous reasons for this, but the key one has to do with the French concept of the affineur, or the “raiser” of the cheese…a concept in very short supply in the U.S.
In France, in the cheese world, les vedettes…the rock stars…are not usually the actual dairy farmers, and cheese producers…(though good French gourmands are aware of them, too).
No. The real stars are the ones who receive the cheese from producers, then hold it in their shops, downstairs in the cave, until the cheeses are just á point (perfectly ready to eat). The cheeses may hold in that window of perfection for as little as a day, sometimes a few days. A great affineur knows exactly when to sell it to you…will not sell it too early, will not sell it too late.
But there’s more than mere timing involved. A great affineur truly “raises” his or her cheeses as if they were children. Some days, if the cheeses are too moist, they must be dried with a towel; some days, if they’re too dry, they must be moistened. Most days they need to be turned, or shifted in the cellar; some of them need a wash on a regular basis with strong alcohol to develop a certain flavor in the rind. There is no specific list of what the affineur must do in his her or cave; are there any rules for parents? Affinage, and parenting, are creative activities!
I tapped into this all over again, a few weeks back in Paris, when a chef friend took me to her favorite affineur in that cheese-mad city:
Cantin is owned by Marie-Anne Cantin, who truly is a rock star in Paris. Gourmands come from toutes les arrondissements to get a few quivering slices of this or that from Marie-Anne.
I was a little intimidated on approaching the shop, because the great one has a reputation for persnicketiness. On some days she’s fine, they say…but on some days you my get your hand metaphorically slapped with a cheese spatula. So, I just went about my business, looking at the marvelous orbs on display…
I guess I did it all politely…because, suddenly…the apparition appeared, looking for cheese talk! And what a pleasure it was…
A few hours later, I was enjoying a Cantin selection at the wonderful home-cookin’ bistro Reed, not far from the cheese shop:
Here’s what I want you to do: ALLEZ-Y!!! As soon as you can! Because this is not about Marie-Anne Cantin alone—this is about an epochal surge threatening to sweep away all that’s good about French cheese. As you can imagine, the bureaucrats in Brussels are eager to “regularize” European cheese, make it more industrial, take it increasingly out of the hands of such a one as Cantin. And they, the bureaucrats, have made progress in numerous food areas, wiping out the small businesses of many tiny artisans, such as charcutiers.
I hope the EU never wins this one. But in case a bad ending is in the offing…we know that people like Marie-Anne Cantin are at the heights of their powers right now. Visit them now. Support them now. Expose your kids to this culture…because they may not have the pleasure of doing the same for their kids!