Thursday, October 25, 2012

Du Pain et du Fromage

Two years ago at this time, I was living in Paris with my family. We had arrived on August 1st to begin a five-month sabbatical—Chris was on leave from Middlebury to work on a new book, and I could do my work anywhere there was a good internet connection. Relocating to Paris was my idea, and at first it garnered mixed enthusiasm from the rest of the family. We were moving from our comfortable house into a tiny, but charming, two bedroom apartment with one Lilliputian bathroom.

View from our apartment’s courtyard. We were on the third floor.

We would be leaving friends and pets and routines and all the conveniences of home. We would also be homeschooling Isabel and Faye, something we had never done before and all were apprehensive about. The last time we lived in France, in 2004, we had immersed the girls in a French public school without their knowing much of the language. It was a rewarding experience on many levels (and they now both have a French accent I’ll never have, no matter how hard I try), but also very challenging. It would be even more challenging now that they were in middle and high school, since the French school system is quite different from ours, and Faye was still a little shell-shocked from the first experience. Isabel also had the opportunity to enroll in a dance academy in Paris, which was a dream come true for her and not an option in Vermont. Since she would be dancing twenty hours per week, homeschooling was the best alternative.

Exploring Roman ruins

Chris and I divided up the teaching responsibilities so he was in charge of science and math (thank goodness), and I got to do English, French, History, and Art History, all of which I was more than happy to delve into with Paris as our classroom. Every day we were out visiting some museum 

Musée Rodin

or historical site, 

Le Louvre

walking the same streets that the characters did in A Tale of Two Cities or The Sun Also Rises. And since food, bien sûr, is a big part of French culture, our explorations often led us to a café, patisserie, chocolaterie, boulangerie, or fromagerie. 

Le Select

Of all of these, the fromagerie is my favorite, and the most difficult to find here in the US. I’ve been in cafés, pastry and chocolate shops, and bakeries that transport me to France, but I’ve never been in an American cheese shop that captures the ambiance of a true fromagerie…..

Some of France’s 300 plus varieties of fromage

where you step through the door and are struck by the moist, pungent air and the cheeses filling the shop, some reverently arranged on straw, some behind glass. But all are bare, not wrapped in plastic, so the mind-boggling variety of shapes and sizes is fully visible. 

Et en plus

A true fromagerie is invariably small and often the owner is the person who serves you, handling the cheeses with care and respect, taking the time to offer tastes and answer questions, though they may be posed in flawed French. A line may form behind you, but there’s no need to rush: “Yes, please, I’d love to try that one too.” It’s a veritable shrine to cheese. A few other items might be for sale—accompaniments such as wine, honey, or fruit compote (never crackers)—but they merely play a supporting role to the sovereign fromage.

While none of us would have wanted to continue homeschooling beyond one semester or outside of Paris, it was a rich, fulfilling experience for all involved. Not since the girls were in preschool did I get such a glimpse into their intellectual thought processes; working with them on literary analysis was just a more complex version of helping them build a block tower. And although it could feel isolating at times (especially for adolescents), I relished that we were our own tight unit, free from the many distractions and obligations that pull us in four different directions back at home in Vermont. 

Atop the Eiffel Tower

When I’m missing our life in France, I often turn to cheese. Sometimes I can find some good, strong French fromage locally, but it’s usually not quite the same once it’s travelled across the ocean. Vermont artisanal cheeses fresh from the farm come much closer to capturing that essence, that quality of aliveness. 

Fromage à la Vermont

For me, much of it has to do with the rind. I cringe when I see a cheese that’s been scooped out from the middle, leaving the rind behind, although I know it’s a matter of personal taste. To me, an earthy rind is often the best part! Twig Farm’s Goat Tomme is a cheese with a Rind (capitalization intentional). Made from raw goat’s milk about a half hour from our house, it has a dense, mushroomy rind that possesses the earthiness I’m seeking. 

Twig Farm’s Goat Tomme

The interior is mild and buttery, providing a perfect counterbalance to the pungent rind. Sliced over a piece of crusty baguette, it brings me back to du pain et du fromage for dinner around our miniature, mod Parisian table.

I’ve never been a big fan of Roquefort, finding its blueness too overpowering. Of the French blues, I prefer the milder Bleu d’Auvergne.  But I have to admit that northeastern Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue is even better. It’s the blue cheese that won me over to blue cheese. Made of raw, creamy cow’s milk like Bleu d’Auvergne, its flavor is one of the most complex of any Vermont cheese. Shot through with deep blue veins, it balances any sharpness with hints of nuts and sweet grass. 

Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue

Encased by a satisfying rind, the interior has a dense, crumbly texture that’s been compared to chocolate. Delicious straight, melted, or crumbled on a salad, it’s one of my very favorite Vermont cheeses.

Hailing from the southwest corner of the state, Consider Bardwell Farm’s Rupert is the next best thing to French Comté, a family favorite and weekly staple in our miniscule French refrigerator. Made of raw Jersey cow’s milk, Rupert is dense and meaty, in the style of a classic Alpine cheese. It has a beautiful, golden hue and an interesting complexity, with hints of caramel.

Consider Bardwell Farm’s Rupert
A dinner featuring these three excellent cheeses, an authentic baguette from Red Hen, local sliced apples and pears,

Luscious Pears

and a green salad brings us all together for a French-inspired meal around our Vermont farmhouse table.

 Prêt à manger

And if I needed another reason to make a meal around Vermont cheese, October also happens to be American Cheese Month. Bon appétit!

Mes filles


  1. C'est magnifique, Sheila. Vive le fromage!

  2. I spent a week in Paris - lucky you to be able to spend a whole year!

    1. I wish it had been a year; it was only half a year, but I can't complain about that!