‘Un petit piece de comte—comme ca.,” the customers at La Fermerie would say, gesturing how much cheese they wanted me to cut with their hands. I’d cut just about the right amount, quickly wrap it up in some paper, and they’d be on their ways. In a small cheese store like La Fermerie, in Paris, cheese is sold very differently than in the United States. French customers have different expectations than Americans, and the cultures around cheese in the two countries are extremely different.
In France, you don’t really taste cheese before buying it. The customer is generally expected to know what they are buying—they can ask about the affinage of the cheese, and they would expect some variation between cheese stores in taste, but the Fromagere is expected to take care of the taste of the cheese; once you find someone who treated their cheeses well, you return over and over to buy from them. Charles, my boss, was an extremely well respected businessman, and taught me a lot about how to take good care of the cheese.
The biggest difference between American cheese stores and French cheese stores, though, is the way that the cheese arrives at the store. Most of the time, in the U.S., the aging of a cheese is done by the cheese maker. Every cheese comes to the store ready to sell, and can be put in front of the customer and tasted right away. In France, though, cheese stores more often buy the cheeses young and then bring them to their caves to age and care for them in-house. The age at which the cheese is sold and consumed is at the discretion of the cheesemonger.
One of my favorite parts about working at La Fermerie was the opportunity to work directly with the cheeses in the cave. We had to work with them daily to ensure that they were doing well, turning them, washing them with vinegar or salt water if they were developing unwanted molds, tasting to see if they were ready to sell.
Where should this power be held? Should the cheesemonger be the one to age the cheese and choose when it can be sold, or should the cheese maker put the cheese in his own caves? Clearly, no matter where the cheese is aged, this shows that the relationship between cheese maker and cheesemonger is extremely important in creating and selling a great cheese.