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President Charles de Gaulle once famously asked: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty six kinds of cheese?”
For Nicole Barthélémy, the question is: how do you find ones fit for the President? We know how the President chooses his Baguette supplier. Since 1973, the proprietress of Fromages Barthélémy has been official cheese supplier to the Elysée Palace, the president’s official residence in Paris. “I’m given a budget, but after that it’s left to me to make a selection based on what’s in season,” she says.
Her tiny shop just off the boulevard Raspail in the Latin Quarter is crammed with every cheese imaginable. She can’t say exactly how many, but on a visit just before Easter, there were 31 kinds of goat’s cheese alone. Barthélémy also offers an extended family of Bries, from the classic Brie de Meaux to Coulommiers, Brie de Melun; a peppery Brie au Poivre and the hard-to-find Fougerus, adorned with a fern leaf. Made in the Paris region, these “real” Bries can have surprisingly complex, powerful flavours with no resemblance to the bland wedges found in supermarkets.
The bell on the door constantly rings, with a steady stream of local customers greeted by their first names like old friends. Madame Barthélémy offers encyclopaedic knowledge and advice in a shop that is a Tour de France of cheese, from huge rounds of aromatic Beaufort from the Alps, to minuscule cones of Mont Ventoux, a goat’s cheese from Provence.
A tiny door opens under a counter and out pops one of Barthélémy’s staff carrying a handsome Fougerus. Down below is a cellar where the cheeses are ripened. This is more complicated than just waiting until they’re “done”, and being an affineur or “cheese-ripener” is a skill forged by experience as much as science.
Some cheeses need to be turned every day, while others are brushed with brine, like the Mont d’Or, one of Barthélémy’s specialities: an unctuous winter cheese with a melting centre from the Jura. “It’s a very hands-on affair,” she says.
Barthélémy got into the cheese business by chance. Her parents were fishmongers on the rue du Poteau in the 18th arrondissement. When she married the son of the cheesemonger next door, she, “moved from sea to land,” as she puts it, and discovered her passion.
Her husband bought the current shop in 1971, and it comes with a long history; the previous owner had had it for 50 years, and it had been a cheesemonger’s before that, too. Most of the fittings are over a hundred years old.
But this is no cheese museum, and De Gaulle would have a hard time counting all the varieties available today. Nicole has seen a craze for cheese with truffles in the last two or three years; another trend is rinds encrusted with flower petals. But people are also rediscovering old “endangered species” like the Bleu de Termignon, made on just four farms in a remote Alpine village.
“There’s no extraordinary or super original cheese,” Barthélémy declares, and she won’t be pinned down on any personal favourites. What’s more important is to respect the best of every season. After that, a cheese is, “either good or bad.” And chez Nicole, they are very good indeed.
Fromages Barthélémy, 51, rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris. Tel: + 33 1 42 22 82 24