Parlez vous fromage?
My hand-drawn instructions are a sublime piece of art. Metro lines, directions, changes, rue by rue and the same in reverse. All this so I can achieve cheese Nirvana in Paris without having to speak to a single French person. Well, ok, I may have to say something at the fromagerie, the Laurent Dubois Fromagerie on Rue Sant-Germain, but here's to hoping.
Two weeks after being in Paris my French language skills remain that of a zygote. Sure, I could ask for some cheese, "avez vous de fromage?" But that would sound awfully stupid in a fromagerie. Ok, so I could say "avez vous de brie?" to be brief and specific. But what unholy concoction of words could comprise the reply to this simple question? "A Brie de Meaux madame? Would you prefer the double cream or the triple? How would you care to try some of this special little artisan goat's cheese made on my grandmother's farm in Normandy?"
No. I can't face it. I am the absolute embodiment of every French person's nightmare. Not only have I failed to master fluent, perfectly accented French, but do I know a sodding thing about cheese or wine? Do I heck. I tried bluffing my way through a wine conversation with a few bits I had picked up in Italy, only to be told that Chianti was "merde" and the only thing the Italians did properly was shoes.
The highly recommended Laurent Dubois Fromagerie loomed in front of me. Central Paris, set on a square surrounded by boulangeries, patisseries and open air cafes. Just as I'm starting to feel like this is all a very bad idea I have stepped across the threshold and been confronted by wall-to-wall cheese.
Less typical than I'd first thought, the layout is modern, the cheeses at eye level; not locked behind a glass counter but out where you can pick them up, poke, sniff, fondle... oh dear, I need help.
Je peux vous aider?
Breathe. You are a tourist. You are a tourist.
Ur, yes. Do you speak English?
Oui, un peu
OK. Well. I. need. some. help. buying. cheese.
O..K.. follow. me. please. mademoiselle.
Thus, with Pierre guiding me gently through the shelves, I find a Coulommiers Brie (for my sister, Miss lactose-intolerant-but-the-pain-is-worth-it), an artisan Roquefort Carles for me, a Vieux Comte 2006 for my mother, a smelly Epoisses for a friend and a Tonnelet goat's cheese for the sake of diversity.
In total just under 40 Euros of knowledge-laden cheese bliss, wrapped and vacuum packed for my Eurostar pleasure. Almost all will keep in the fridge for three weeks, the brie just one week. I leave grinning ear-to-ear, Pierre probably mourning the cheese that will be scoffed with a Ritz cracker by an English troglodyte and her cave-dwelling relatives.
My next stop on the cheese pilgrimage is a fromagerie-cum-restaurant, Assiette Aux Fromages: Specialities Savoyardes, run by a friendly Greek (finally, a nation that loves the English) who's been in Paris for forty years. All wood and low lighting, it's a perfectly cosy escape from the chilly October air outside. Owner Josh Peltekis takes me out to the small sheltered garden to show off his grapes. Climbing a ladder and groaning audibly at the strain he gallantly clips me a bunch. This luscious homegrown harvest is presented to me with three blocks of goat cheese moments later. Told you they love the English.
I choose a three-cheese fondue, which I'm not ashamed to admit is my first. Yes. Ever. No word of a lie. I put myself to eating the entire basket of bread and deliciously bubbling fondue, made from Comte Savoy and Emmenthal, with 20 percent devoted to an 18-month-old Cantal du Auvergne. As a virgin dipper I sit stirring away lest it burn the cheese. Moments later the waiter (who I had assumed was merely appreciating my vigorous technique) bounds over gesticulating manically telling me to stop. I should stir it once, slowly, clockwise and then wait. This is tradition, the way it is.
So I've learned how to stir a pot of melted cheese and made a friend for life. Josh is introducing me to his daughter and clasping me to his breast like an old friend. I tear myself away from offers of tea and coffee with the family, feeling all warm inside and quite inclined to visit Greece. Feta anyone?