Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Biscarrosse – gorgeous beach & lakes on a budget

February 24, 2012

I’m at an adorable B&B overlooking the dunes in Biscarrosse-Plage on the Côte d’Argent, after accepting a seemingly seductive proposition. “How about if every month for a year, you came along for two to three days while I film the tide at one of twelve spots along the French Atlantic coast?”

The offer to be a video artist’s road buddy/logistical backup came from my husband Jeffrey, who concluded that as the youngest of our three children is soon to graduate lycée and leave the nest, it’s time to overcome resistance to accompanying him on working trips.  The Arctic Circle (twice) and Bay of Fundy were easy to pass up, but he knows I’m a sucker for the French Atlantic coast, which has everything a landlocked girl from the Jersey shore craves, except sunrise over the horizon, salt water taffy and a boardwalk.

For once, I don’t get to pick the destinations.  The twelve filming locations are equidistant and his schedule requires we leapfrog up and back, starting at the Spanish boarder, stopping at six points heading north and after reaching Pointe du Raz in Brittany, head back to cover six points on the way back down – ending up around Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains in December.

Creature comforts are my responsibility, being practiced at finding a charming chambres d’hôtes or intimate hotel*, and decent places to eat and drink.  I’m not permitted to stray far a field from the filming location, as we have one car, and being PA on the project, I’m expected to set up and break down at appointed hours – which yesterday began at 7:30 am, with the thermometer registering 0 C, frost obscuring the windshield and a stiff wind whipping the filming tent atop the dunes.

Agreeing to the scheme, I forgot that half the year – November through March, is pretty grim at the seaside, with shops and service establishments shuttered in all but larger towns midweek.   Before Easter and after Toussaint, there’s a good chance many of the places I hope to see/try will be closed, but it is France, so there’s bound to be fresh seafood served somewhere, a boulangerie,  and café with strong coffee, a galopin de bière, or verre de vin.

It’s a great opportunity to discover destinations like Biscarrosse, that I mightn’t otherwise be inclined to visit, and fill in my regional knowledge gaps.  The natural beauty of the Atlantic coast is stunning.  Cresting the dunes and confronting a broad sandy beach stretching into infinity, with waves crashing and gulls swooping, is a thrill I’ll never tire of.  Thanks to protectionism imposed by the Loi Littoral in 1986, a break was put on development.  For an American from the east coast, it’s refreshing to note that a serious effort was made to develop hiking trails along the coastline and permit everyone access to beaches.

So back to Biscarrosse, or ‘Bisca’ to habituees.  It’s at the northern limit of les Landes, the 100 km of coast edged with pine forest that runs between Biarritz and the Bay of Arcachon in the Gironde.  Les Landes has always been an isolated, sparsely populated region, although Biscarosse being an hour’s drive from Bordeaux, it is now becoming something of a bedroom community.   The population swells more than tenfold in summer months, but now it’s getting to be lively year round – at least on weekends.  For distraction midweek, Arcachon is less than a half hour’s drive north.

Popular has two meanings here.  Unlike Biarritz and Arcachon, which developed as fashionable bathing stations in late 19th century due to an influx of British and European aristocrats and captains of industry, Biscarrosse was popularized by working class French after passage of the first mandatory paid vacation law in 1936.  That year, 600,000 salaried workers left home for the first time on paid holiday leave and many headed for the coast.  By 1982, France’s mandatory 2 weeks of paid vacation had extended to 5, and the camping grounds and holiday bungalows around Biscarrosse-Plage and its sister town, Biscarrosse-Ville ( located between the shores of two enormous lakes) expanded along with the swelling crowd of vacationers.

The beach at Biscarrosse has the added attraction of having two enormous fresh water lakes alongside it.  Northern Lake Cazeaux is where most of the action is concentrated, along its south-west and southern shore.  There is a Pierre & Vacances golf course resort, several sandy beaches, and ports filled with sail and motorboats.  Because there is no access to the sea from the lakes, very few ocean going pleasure boats and fishing vessels pass by the on the horizon.  It also explains why Biscarrosse hasn’t become a tony resort, as there is no ocean harbor for glitzy yachts to dock.

Tents have disappeared from the camping grounds, replaced by RVs and bungalows.  Several have five star ratings, with full service facilities, grocery stores, tennis courts, miniature golf, and a host of organized water sports and leisure activities. They draw families from all over France, along with a significant contingent of Dutch, German, Belgian and British tourists.

12 surf shops and 4 schools in Biscarosse-Plage testify to a boom in long and short board surfing, now a veritable craze along the south Atlantic coast.  Surfing, like skate and snow boarding, has engendered a flurry of youthful tribes, with distinct subcultures.  Along with surf shops, Biscarrosse-Plage has the requisite neo hippy clothing boutiques, piercing/tattoo studios and enough pizza and waffle shops to sate carbo cravings.

The first summer vacation cottages were built in the teens, with subsequent development surges in the 1930’s, 50s and 70’s.  Many of the period houses have been restored and added onto.  Judging from some unsightly 1970’s apartment blocks and ugly commercial facades, it would seem that many of the old cottages were razed opposite the oceanfront promenade.

The beach is majestic, as it is all along the Côte d’Argent, the longest and wildest sandy shoreline in Europe, which runs the length of the Landes and Gironde departments.  The dunes are high, requiring strairways down to the beach.  If you want to avoid high season crowds on the strip below the promenade, you can head a bit further north to Vivier Plage.  Getting to the water requires a walk through the pines and a scramble down the dunes but the reward of relative isolation is worth it.

Philippe Pascutto, the delightful host of Cote & Dune is a surfer himself and borrowed the theme as the design motif for his sunny, beach centric chambres d’hôtes.  A native of the region, Philippe returned after 25 years working at an IT job in Paris to pursue his dream of living by the sea.  His contemporary home is built around a central courtyard, replete with sleek pool and teak decking.  All but one of the 5 surf themed guestrooms has a balcony, roof deck or terrace.   Once air warmed to 10 C, the sun drenched balcony of pink hued ‘Malibu’ was a relaxing spot for a read, wrapped in a polar throw provided for just such occasions.

Philippe has visited some of the world’s best beaches, and the guestrooms are decorated with travel books and funky-chic travel mementos from Hawaii, Brazil, Costa Rica, California and Australia, along with inventive shell and driftwood decorative objects created by his partner, a talented interior designer who oversaw the creation of the project in 2010.

Elegant landscaping features succulent and native sand-loving flowing plants that create a harmonious counterpoint to the fresh, upbeat ambiance of the interior.  The rooms are compact without being cramped, with well appointed open-plan bathrooms to optimize a sense of light and spaciousness.

Breakfast is served at a long white table in the central dining section of your hosts’ loft inspired living area.  In a designer’s home, nothing is left to chance and every detail, from the cluster of shells adorning your place setting, to the reglisse flavored ‘black honey’ and home made mini canelés, is picture perfect.

Philippe has excellent suggestions for dining and touring.  Having a good working relationship with local restaurants and the tourist office, he was able to quickly resolve a few logistical snafus.   Once you’ve had your fill of beach-combing and walks through the pine forests, I suggest heading to Pyla and Arcachon, if just to see the idiosyncratic and often opulent architecture of villas in the old neighborhoods and climb on the tallest sand dune in Europe.

On Sunday and Monday night, dining options around Bisca were slim, but we enjoyed a satisfying menu du jour at Le Bleu Banane, a contemporary bistro serving simple but well prepared French staples.  It’s terrace ajoins the large central pedestrian square a few blocks back from the waterfront.  The chef, a fourth generation local, filled us in on the history of the town.  It grew up around a rail station for transport of resin tapped from surrounding pine forests.  Resin extraction, which resembles maple syrup sugaring, was a labor-intensive process.   Many of the resiniers were former shephards sqeezed out of a livlihood when more profitable pine forests were planted over their marshy pastures.  They lived a simple existence in cabins, many of which were subsequently converted into summer cottages.  The demand for domestic, natural resin diminished with competition from cheap overseas and synthetic supplies, and the industry died out in 1990.  I should add that the 2006 Rioja he recommended was the ideal accompaniment to a perfectly cooked onglet de boeuf.

Isolation provided by the biggest forest in Western Europe led to requisition in the 1960s of tens of thousands of acres just south of Biscarrosse by the French government to create Europe’s leading missile test center.  The high security facility maintains a low profile and doesn’t seem to bother residents, in part because it has hampered coastal development.

Despite initial aesthetic reservations, I left with fondness for this throwback of a seaside town.  It is unpretentious and friendly; rare attributes for a French coastal resort.  With real estate probitive in the oh so chic Gironde resorts of Pyla, Arcachon and Cap Ferret, Biscarrosse might just be on the cusp of a full fledged makeover.

* I’ve not received a discount, let alone a freebee at any of the chambres d’hôtes or hotels mentioned in my blog.

HENDAYE – last stop on the Côte Basque

February 6, 2012
Fontarabie port & resto Ostalamer

The French Atlantic coast trends to melancholy midwinter, but Hendaye on the Spanish border is an exception. You know you’ve landed in a surfing mecca if it’s January, barely above freezing and pelting rain, yet dozens of neoprene-hooded heads are bobbing in the breakers.  Seafront parking is jammed until sunset, when the diehards reluctantly emerge from the waves, and peel off wetsuits right on the street in their haste to get into something warm and dry.

Hendaye has a health-conscious, sporty vibe – with a steady passage of cyclists, runners and hikers rounding the harbor, beachfront and vertiginous corniche road tracing the coast up to St Lean de Luz.  People are out and about at all hours, even if it’s just walking a dog along the waterfront.

Hikers know it as the Atlantic departure point for the ambitious G-10 trail, which crosses the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean along the Franco-Spanish border.  Thalasso-spa Serge Blanco, which was closed for renovation, is also a popular draw.

Hendaye lies on the north bank of the Bidossoa River, where it meets the sea at the Bay of Chingoudy.  The Spanish town of Fontarabie is across the bay to the South, and the massive Deux Jumeaux (Two Twins) rocks rise up from the sea below the cliffline to the north.

The well-protected harbor permits pleasure boats to dock year round. There’s also an active fishing community of open sea vessels and anglers off the jetty.  Didn’t see any sailboats in action but a club of rowers showed up at dusk to practice off the fishing dock, while kayakers meandered around the bay.

A mere trace remains of historic L’Isle de Faisons, rendezvous point for royal and diplomatic exchanges over the centuries between Spain and France because of it’s strategic, face-saving location off the mainland.  In 1526, Francois I was traded for two of his sons after being captured at the siege of Parvis, Anne of Austria, bride of Louis XIII, entered her new country here in 1615, and in 1660, the marriage contract of Louis XIV with the Infanta of Spain was signed in a pavilion designed for the occasion by Velasquez, as a term of the treaty which concluded 30 years of warfare between the rival nations.

The town is divided between Hendaye-ville (train station, town hall, businesses and principal shopping district) and leisure-centric Hendaye-plage (beach, port de peche, port de plaisance, thalasso, hotels and casino).

We stayed at Villa Goxoa, a pleasant family run micro hotel on a magnolia-lined residential street, equidistant between the beach and harbor.  Owners Nathalie and Marc Applagnat inherited the house and gutted the interior three years ago to create a minimalist contemporary nine-room hotel.  Rooms are small and lack a bit of character, but impeccable, with comfortable beds, good sheets and pillows.  Several have a small balcony or terrace. Bathrooms proportionately bigger and well appointed, though only one double is equipped with a bath.  Satisfying breakfast of OJ, yogurt, fresh fruit salad, croissants, baguette, whole grain bread and a pot of strong coffee.  Off-season, a double runs €85-95 euros, plus €10 for breakfast. Read More »

Parisian Hideaways to be redistributed Feb 7 by Rizzoli Universe for just $17.98

January 23, 2012
Parisian Hideaways

Happy to report that PARISIAN HIDEAWAYS is now an affordable gift (especially to yourself).

The online discount at Amazon and Barnes&Noble brings it to under $13!

Book Specifications

Format: Hardcover 216 pages
US Price: $17.98
ISBN: 978-0-7893-2417-7
Publisher: Rizzoli Universe Promotional Books (February 7, 2012)
Trim Size: 9.3 x 1 x 9.3 inches

Tidings of Commerce & Junk

December 20, 2011
christmas out of focus

I return to the States at least twice a year, but until two weeks ago hadn’t visited between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, since 1989.  It’s hardly America’s most flattering season.  Over the intervening decades, the holiday season caught the same malady as presidential campaigns and sports seasons – the chief symptoms being it lasts too long, and exerts undue influence over the national psyche and popular culture.

When I asked friends and family to recollect how it was way back in the late 80’s before inflatable snow globe lawn ornaments, LED roof line lights and holiday-jingles-all-the-time radio stations, they were pretty certain it was much the same – like parents who don’t notice changes in children morphing daily under their noses, while someone who sees them every few years finds them barely recognizable.

In the aftermath of the ‘great recession’, I anticipated a reassessment of the ‘meaning of Christmas’ and collective determination to resist deficit consumer spending. While Republican presidential wannabees stage endless debates extolling radical cuts in government programs to reduce the national debt, corporate America hasn’t let up its consumer assault.  The means of infiltration, with new media larded over old – renders the red, green and glitz pitch relentless.

Over ten days I visited Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, staying in cities and suburbs.  The further north I headed, the worse it seemed to get.  It might be that the intensity of Manhattan, where there’s no escape from input overload, proved a tipping point.

Wasn’t Christmas about celebrating the birth of a child in a manger, who grew to preach about the illusion of material well-being?   I hoped to find respite from the onslaught at mass in my old parish church, but it too was unrecognizable – with a gargantuan advent wreath featuring four massive candles the size of pascal candles intended to be lit throughout a full liturgical year.   The scale of disneyfied décor had the charm of shopping mall swag.

As much as I’ll miss sharing Christmas, Hannukah and New Year with my nearest and dearest American family and friends, I left regretting that at least for me, the joys of the season are squelched by an avalanche of schmaltz and commercial overkill.

Nice, capital of endless summer.

October 6, 2011
Nice plage et port

Never made an effort to visit Nice.  When you live in Europe long enough, certain destinations like Ibiza or Prague acquire inevitability – you presume you’ll get there eventually.  It took 25 years for an invitation to celebrate a friend’s birthday to make it happen.  Unseasonably hot weather intensified tourist density, but the city’s irrefutable charm trumped my Cote d’Azur phobia.

Reality matched the improbable cover of a brochure titled “Nice, a natural brilliance” picked up at the airport – featuring a salmon pink building with sunflower window trim and mint shutters, silhouetted against an azure sky behind a fringe of palm fronds.  At sunset, certain buildings seem lit from within.  Graced with miraculous light, the lemon, ochre and terra cotta facades adorned with delicate stucco manage to appear elegant rather than garish.  The mixture of 19th century and deco architecture reminded me of Montevideo, as does the sinuous Promenade des Anglais tracing the waterfront.

Wish I’d experienced Nice before it was France’s number two tourist destination, when the tropical bravura was still leavened with a patina of melancholy.  Summer stretches from May through October and the balmy winter keeps people coming right through.  Heavy pedestrian traffic made it hard to fully appreciate gracious Place Masséna, the old town and waterfront – the way viewing a masterpiece across three rows of shoulders in a museum is dissatisfying.

The historic old town isn’t drained of residential vitality. Locals still shop and gather in cafes lining the narrow shaded streets below the citadel.  The famous flower market running parallel to the shoreline is worth a visit.  Also recommend the vélo bleu, Nice’s answer to the Paris Velib bike rental circuit.  I challenge you to make it up the hill to the Matisse museum – a true three-gear feat.

Sunday morning I witnessed quite by chance a frankly outrageous religious celebration in the Basilica Cathedral of Sainte Marie–Sainte Réparte.  October 5th is the feast of Sainte Fleur, the patron saint of florists and since 1996, it’s celebrated on Sunday closest to the date.  My first impression seeing the riot of red, white and green floral arrangements was that I’d crashed a mafia wedding.  The display was so over the top, adorning every conceivable focal point.  Several priests concelebrated mass surrounded by five flower-bedecked beauty queens seated facing the congregation with rapt smiles on their meticulously made up faces.  It was like watching mass on a carnival float.  Four of the Femmes-Fleurs represented the seasons, and a stunning blond in royal blue trimmed with golden yellow blooms, represented Nice-la-Belle.  The cut flower industry is big business in the region and the event felt like a feast cooked up with the chamber of commerce.  A priest at the end of the service thanked the 30 participating florists and of course the mayor.  Turns out this was the main event of an annual two-day Fête de la Sainte-Fleur festival.

The diocese of Nice is clearly in the vanguard creating special events to draw in the faithful.  The Sunday edition of Nice Matin covered the benediction of hundreds of portable phones earlier in the week on the feast of archangel Gabriel, patron of communication. When questioned whether his blessing had the support of senior clergy, father Gil Florini happily reported that his bishop texted approval.  This week, pets are invited on the feast of Saint Francis.

Bravura and extravagance are synonymous with France’s most southern and Italian city. Long property of the King of Sardinia, it was annexed by France in 1860 and has been colonized since by generations of British sun seekers.  A weekend with the distractions of a birthday celebration was far too brief a visit.  Looks like I’ll be returning, but preferably in March or November.

La Part des Anges:  Found on  Wine bar favoring natural producers, with daily menu featuring fresh local, organic and artisinal produce.  Rustic décor, relaxed ambiance & friendly welcome.  Lunch, Monday-Saturday.  Dinner, Friday & Saturday.  Limited seating, so reserve for dinner.

La Pizza (Cresci):  Nice’s oldest pizza restaurant in business since 1956. Wood-fire oven, unpretentious décor & terrace on pedestrian street.  Recommend the aubergine. Arrive with an appetite.

Birthday celebrations were held at two chic eateries:  dinner at La Petite Maison in the old town, and lunch at La Guérite on Ile Sainte-Marguerite, the larger of iles de Lérins in the bay of Cannes.

Hard to judge a restaurant from fixed menus served to 80 guests, but the settings were fun and libations flowing. La Petite Maison seems a tad spoiled by success, but La Guérite, enjoys an idyllic pied dans l’eau setting on the quiet side of the island.  The scenic boat ride from the Nice port takes an hour.

New York’s Lower East Side – a nostalgia tour

August 9, 2011
Lower East Side

My last Manhattan neighborhood back in 1986 was the East Village, when it was still marginal to rough.  An attempt by young art dealers to break out from Soho and establish an edgy gallery district had failed, and the mood was dispirited.  The block I lived on off Third Avenue on East 12th Street, was lined with a modest mix of prewar appartment blocks and small-scale brownstones, awaiting the spark of gentrification.

I’d moved downtown from a coop building off Central Park on the establishment Upper East Side and the culture shock was was both thrilling and intimidating.  Mugging was rampant then throughout the city, especially in borderline neighborhoods, so dormant feral instinct quickly kicked in.  A few years earlier, fresh out of college, I had a dim apppartment on West 79th Street off Broadway, followed by a sunny, souless perch in an anonymous Yorkville high rise, but had yet to share a stoop with hookers and addicts.

Times sure have changed.  This month, our eldest daughter will move into a college dorm two blocks from my old address, in what has become the most desirable neighborhood in Manhattan, if not the country, for a young creative person.  It’s safe but still aesthetically edgey compared to predominantly residential/retail uptown neighborhoods.  Happily there are still vestiges of its immigrant and bohemian heritage. Read More »

Hotel LENOX, Saint Germain.

June 17, 2011

I imagined that writing a Paris hotel book might get me off the hook, but I continue to receive a steady stream of queries from family, friends, friends of friends and sixth degree of separation Facebook networkers asking, WHERE DO YOU RECOMMEND I STAY IN PARIS?  I politely suggest they BUY MY BOOK, but for any number of reasons, people crave customized advice based on their very specific needs.

Since starting this blog last summer, I  avoided covering hotels.  It’s a counter intuitive choice considering my niche expertise in French “Hideaway” hotels and B&Bs, but I wished to explore other subjects.  How silly when demand for updates on Paris hotels and charming rural chambre d’hôtes appears insatiable.

Before we go further, I’ll feel better if you read a quote from my introduction to Parisian Hideaways:

In his book Paris, John Russell, former chief art critic for the New York Times, cautions: “Hotels, like restaurants, are a subject upon which advice is usually fatal. The choice of an hotel is as private a matter as the choice of a wife.”

With this in mind, I gave up on impartiality and set out to find thirty hotels where I’d like to stay.

Securing a good table in a restaurant doesn’t cost more, but you do have to ask for it.  It’s best to do so when making your reservation rather than when unhappily seated by the entry to the kitchen.  The same applies to hotel rooms.  The better informed you are, the less likely you are to be dissatisfied.  Do you prefer a street view or a courtyard view, high or low floor, proximity to the elevator etc?   In boutique hotels, the decor, layout and size can vary between rooms in the same price category.  Look at the room photos on the web site and if you see a picture of one you like, ask about it.  Consult the floor plan (if there is one.)  When you check in, if there’s a choice of rooms available, ask to see them. Read More »

Madame Grès Exhibit at Musée Bourdelle

May 25, 2011
Goddess Gowns

Make a detour to the 15th arrondissement, for the show and the museum. It’s close to Gare Montparnasse at 8, rue Antoine Bourdelle.

Ends July 24th.

Another innovator who changed their name.  It’s uncanny how many creative people reboot their persona with a name change. Germaine Krebs (1903-1993) did it in stages; adopting Alix Barton when she began working as a designer in the 1930’s and Madame Grès after launching her couture house in the 1942.  Grès was an anagram of her husband’s name, Serge Czerefkov, a Russian painter.

Madame Grès trained as a sculptor, so it’s fitting that a major show of her couture clothing, sketches, and collection of fashion and portrait photography featuring her designs by preeminent photographers of the 1930s through the 1980’s – is installed in the former home and atelier of neoclassical sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). Though an intimate museum, it’s surprising spacious and comprises lovely gardens.

Bourdelle, a student and friend of Rodin, produced vigorous nudes on a frequently monumental scale.  His muse was another unconventional neoclassicist – Isadora Duncan. Madame Grès’ neoclassical vision stands up well in comparison.  The artistry of her craft calls to mind winged victory – the headless Hellenistic sculpture that’s among the Louvre’s treasures. Read More »

Best cheese plate assortment – Rodolphe Le Meunier

May 17, 2011

I asked Rodolphe to suggest four varieties to create a cheese plate for a dinner party. French cheese is classed into five main families, so I was limiting him somewhat. He might have preferred I said five, so he could pick one from each family.

Rodolphe begins by saying “At that time,” meaning “at this time of year (i.e. spring),” and goes on to propose several options for each of the first three selections.

Suggestions by family :

Chèvre/Goat – Couronne de Touraine or Pouligny.

Croûte Fleurie/Soft Ripened – Saint-Félicien, Saint-Marcelin or Brie de Meaux.

Pâte Pressée cuite ou non cuite/Cooked or Uncooked Pressed – Comté (cooked), Salers (uncooked), or Saint-Nectaire (uncooked).

Bleu/Blue or Croûte Lavée/Washed – For the fourth recommendation, he suggests including either a blue such as the Roquefort he has on the plate in front of him, or a washed (pronounced wa-shed in the film).  Munster, Livarot, Maroilles and Epoisses are from the washed (croûte lavée) cheese family.  They tend to be golden or orange in color and have a pungent aroma, although the taste is not as strong as the aroma suggests.

His specific recommendations for another time of the year would be different but he would still select one cheese from each family.

Rodolphe Le Meunier, Touraine’s Champion des Fromages

May 12, 2011
Fromage de Chèvre

Along with wine making, the French cheese industry is undergoing a back to basics renaissance, marked by renewed appreciation for authentic flavor and organic process. As with natural wine production, which respects the idiosyncrasies and inconsistency of terroir, a new generation of cheese producers, refiners and sellers are putting science back in service of nature.

Rodolphe Le Meunier epitomizes the new vanguard.  At 35, he doesn’t have much left to learn about cheese.  Since 2007, he’s collected an impressive set of awards, including Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is the gastronomic Pulitzer for food artisans, and the International Caseus Award – the Olympic gold of the cheese world.

He and his sister Caroline are the third generation to run Les Fromages du Moulin in La Croix en Touraine, between Tours and Amboise.  Instead of making goat cheese and selling it at local markets as their grandmother did, Rodolphe uses his expertise to identify the best French and European cheese, which he then ages in cold storage until it’s ready to be sold.  To guarantee that every cheese arrives at its destination in perfect condition, Rodolphe added a distribution and export business – From’europe – located in the Rungis wholesale market outside Paris.

Le Meunier has a profound appreciation for how well nature gets the job done if the conditions it requires are respected.  The title affineur (refiner or cheese ager) gives a false impression of his role, since cheese matures with or without human intervention.  His job is to create the optimum environment by controlling temperature, humidity level and air circulation, all the while carefully surveying how things are progressing.   “It’s the same with wine.  Storing it in an insulated wine cellar will produce better results than allowing it to age in a warehouse where temperature and light isn’t controlled.  Either way, the wine in the bottle continues to evolve, but one will taste much better than the other.”

Like French celebrity chefs and winemakers, Le Meunier is leveraging his reputation to diversify his business and expand reach.  Increasingly, the cheese and butter he exports to New York and Japan are marketed under the Rodolphe Le Meunier brand.  The classic package design features a label with his signature, three gold fleur de lis and the distinctive MOF medal.  Among his American clients is Wegmans, an 80-store mid Atlantic food market, ranked by the Food Network and Consumer Reports as America’s best grocery chain.

Le Meunier cheeses are produced in partnership with select cheese makers he’s identified as best in their class.  Few producers he’s approached have turned him down.  His partners are pleased to be singled out by a discerning judge in a field crowded with competitors.  Le Meunier functions as product development and marketing consultant as well as distributor.  His association permits independent producers to introduce their cheese to markets they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity or inclination to reach.  “There are so many wonderful French cheeses that aren’t consumed outside of France.  Certain goat, sheep and soft ripened cheese are tricky to export because they need to stay moist yet breathe in transport.  The solution is airfreight but even then you can’t risk delivery taking more than three days.”  He also sells to French supermarkets, but circumvents the distribution chain, which can be fatal for fragile cheese, by delivering direct to stores.

If you’re a cheese lover like I am, it’s an infinitely fascinating subject and I arrived at our meeting with tons of questions and a fair number of, as it turns out, wrong assumptions.  The first myth dispelled is that buying cheese with the AOC label (Appellation d’Origine Controllé) or AOP as its EU name has become (Appellation d’Origine protégée) is an assurance of quality.   “AOP tells you a cheese is made in a certain location using a particular method, but guarantees nothing in terms of quality.  It’s the quality of milk used and who is makes the cheese that determines whether it’s good. Again, like wine, there are great cheeses without an AOP label, and inferior cheese with one.”

Mold is a good sign on ripening cheese. “Fuzz is natural.  If it doesn’t grow on the skin of cheese, it’s pasteurized.  On a soft ripened cheese like Saint Marcellin, it’s so fine you don’t see it but it’s there.”   You might not like the taste, but it’s perfectly ok to eat – it’s a question of preference.  “Some people don’t like the rind on Brie, but if the cheese is a good one, it’s delicious.”

Not every cheese needs to breathe while aging.  Some washed rinds like Maroilles or Epoisses, are aged wrapped in plastic, to make them creamier.  Even so, the cold storage room for this cheese family had a particularly pungent odor.  The aroma of the goat cheese room was also memorable, but the cold chamber lined in Austrian terra cotta bricks where his pressed cheese age, was pleasant.

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