What a friend we have in cheeses

“Each sort of cheese reveals a pasture of a different green, under a different sky.”

—Italo Calvino

The foggy Saturday morning rains had come in veils, like the northern lights, washing the cobbles. Fool: I’d left my umbrella at the tiny two-star hotel the airline had given me for mucking up my return flight to London. It was midsummer 1994; Paris was in the throes of World Cup fever. I’d made up my mind to wait out the rain in a café beneath a canopy when suddenly the clouds fissured and the rain stopped.

A dull, filtered sun appeared: the neighborhood looked as if it had been photographed in black and white, veneered in raindrops. I looked up the street, which opened onto a square whose name I’ve long forgotten, where, like mushrooms, a tent city, closed to the rain, was opening in the silvered light.

The tents covered something I’d never seen before: the inner perimeter of the square was demarked by a single file of white display coolers, like a supermarket’s meat section, perhaps twenty of them, each sheltered by a canvas cabin.

I had stumbled across an open-air fromagerie, some 200m of open display cases featuring hundreds, perhaps thousands of cheeses. I wandered the length of the cases, surveying the cheeses from a safe distance, not wanting to disturb the frômageurs.

And for a very particular reason: I had never even seen a single one of the cheeses. The names were a mystery, the labels tiny maps leading nowhere: Epoisses. Tomme de Savoie. Valencay. Aisy cendré (that was easy…superficially: an ashed cheese.)

One of the cheesemongers, a short round faced fellow from the Pyrenees, sized me up and offered me a viscous sliver of Chaource, a cylindrical white-rind cheese, nutty and slightly salty…perfect with champagne. Even creamier than Camembert, Chaource dates back to the time of the Crusades.

I tried a Coulommiers, the mother of all Bries, with a pear, finally buying a perfect Livarot, a powerful, spicy cheese, washed with salt water and held together by sergeant’s stripes of rush leaves.

I took the Livarot back to my hotel with a baguette and a bottle of Hungarian dessert wine the Pyrenean cheesemonger recommended. I ate the cheese and the bread and a sharp Norman apple on the tiny balcony of my hotel with Tokai in a hotel glass. The rain clouds gathered again, working their way across the sky, big grey battleships. I was on Paris time.