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The Winding Road to Gold at Mondial Du Fromage

World’s Best Cheesemonger Virginie Dubois-Dhorne traded academia for affinage

Photographed by Hans Westbeek

Dedicating her life to curds was the last thing Virginie Dubois-Dhorne had in mind when her husband asked her to help out at his cheese shop. In fact, when she married Jean-François—a political science graduate turned cheesemonger and affineur—she was in the second year of writing her PhD thesis in German literature and swore she would never go into the business of fromage. That was his calling, not hers. But fate dictated otherwise.

La Finarde’s historic ripening cellars in Arras

Pregnant with their first child and following doctor’s orders to stay off her feet, Virginie decided to put her studies on hold. At the time, Jean-François needed help at his first cheese shop in the coastal French town of Le Touquet, so she agreed to sit at the cash register, with every intention of returning to academia after the birth of their daughter. Three more pregnancies quickly followed, and a few years later Jean-François jumped at the opportunity to take over La Finarde, the cheese business his family had established in northern France in 1966. Though it wasn’t an easy choice, Virginie gave up her dreams of becoming a professor to work with her husband and raise their four children.

Little by little, not only did she develop an interest in cheese, but she began to fall in love with the product, even taking on the role of affineur alongside Jean-François. In 2012, when Arras’s 17th-century citadel became demilitarized, the couple set up La Finarde’s headquarters in one of the buildings and purchased the historic cellars (where gunpowder was once stored) to age a selection of their finest cheeses.

Entrance to the former gunpowder storage, now a cheese-aging cellar, at Arras’ 17th century citadel

Witnessing the dedication of artisanal cheesemakers and the enthusiasm of faithful clients opened a whole new world for Virginie—one where textures, flavors and aromas lead to endless creative possibilities. With the same level of culinary artistry as a Michelin-starred chef, Virginie uses La Finarde’s cheeses (more than 300 varieties) to create sumptuous platters that attest to her expertise and are a visual feast to behold.

It wasn’t until 2016, however, when she won first place at the Lyre d’Or competition (in which French cheesemongers vie to arrange the most impressive cheese platter) that she started to earn recognition for her talents. Eager to continue proving herself, she entered the prestigious Mondial du Fromage et des Produits Laitiers three years later. The biannual contest held in Tours since 2013 showcases the know-how and excellence of cheese professionals from every corner of the globe. Virginie missed gold by 0.002 points, but was determined to compete again in 2021 and started preparing six months before being selected to enter.

Virginie with her trophy in front of her winning cheese display | Benjamin Debuis photo

A detail from Virginie’s cheese display | Benjamin Debuis photo

On September 13, 2021, Virginie was up against 10 contestants from eight different countries. The rigorous competition included everything from blind tastings and defending a cheese of choice in front of an international jury (in Virginie’s case, Mimolette, a cheese native to northern France and one of La Finarde’s specialties) to creating cheese sculptures and putting together spectacular platters based on a specific cheese or an assigned theme. Her intensive training and sleepless nights spent developing her tasting skills certainly paid off when Virginie was crowned the world’s best cheesemonger and the first woman in France to be granted this honor. She was the third woman to win gold after Miyuki Murase from Japan in 2013 and Nathalie Vanhaver from Belgium in 2017. “I felt like I could burst with joy,” she said.

Despite this distinguished title, Virginie has remained humble and loyal to her craft. Whether it’s carefully aging her beloved cheeses at La Finarde’s cellars, creating elaborate platters or serving customers at the many markets she visits with her cheese vans in northern France, it’s evident that the vocation she once dismissed has been the one that brought her the most fulfillment.

Paola Westbeek

Paola Westbeek is a journalist who focuses on French food, wine, and travel. Her work has led her to every delicious corner of the French hexagon, and she is a regular contributor to FRANCE Magazine and culinary columnist for French publications En Route and French Property News.

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