My husband and I were just finishing an exquisite meal at Brasserie du Casino, in Vichy, France, when the hostess wheeled by a five-foot-long cart laden with cheeses. It was destined for the table behind us, where another couple was apparently concluding their repast with a cheese course.
As I eavesdropped on the conversation, the woody aroma of St. Nectaire wafted in my direction. A large wheel of this nutty-flavored semi-soft variety dominated the cart. Beside it was a runny Brie. The hostess pointed out other offerings: sheep’s milk cheese known as brebis; bite-size chèvre; and Cantal, a cow’s milk cheese thought to be a precursor to cheddar. Yet untouched was a fine specimen of Valençay, a sharp goat cheese coated in ash that looks like a pyramid with the top cut off.
It was an all-you-can-eat cheese-lover’s dream that I could only watch with voyeuristic pleasure. Carving off thin slices of each variety that the diners selected, the hostess created a still life as she expertly arranged them on a plate. A dollop of jam and a scattering of walnuts completed the picture. There was a fresh basket of bread to accompany the course.
Our own dessert choice had been much more decadent and labor-intensive. We had opted for profiteroles, which were made to order, so we had to commit to them before eating our main course. And this item, which we shared, could have been a meal by itself: three cream puffs, or petits choux, as they are called, filled with vanilla ice cream, sealed with whipped cream, and practically swimming in dark-chocolate sauce.
Whenever possible in restaurants, I like to order things that I can’t easily prepare myself. This certainly fit the bill. And after first eating a sumptuous main course (a stew of bass with shitake mushrooms) and polishing off the profiteroles, I didn’t have room for another bite. Certainly not cheese.
We had stopped in Vichy for only one night on the way from Alsace, in northeast France, south, to the Périgord, or, as it is more commonly called, the Dordogne. It is a place of historical interest, having been the seat of government for the French collaboratist regime during the first few years of World War II. We were curious to taste the famous Vichy thermal waters at the source and arranged a stay in the historic old city, studded with Art Deco buildings.
The route there, traveling south and west from Alsace, had taken us through the Auvergne, a desolate landscape compared with the vineyards of Alsace. But fertile soil, enriched by volcanic ash, makes it an excellent grazing area. And this, in turn, accounts for Auvergne’s impressive array of cheeses. (Think St. Nectaire, Comté and Auvergne blue cheese, among others.) As our car sped by all those cows, I regretted that there had been no time to stop.
By noon the next day, though, we had had our fill of Vichy. Those thermal waters tasted like something one must drink before a gastrointestinal procedure. The famous Art Deco opera house was being used for a conference, so we couldn’t go inside. A plaque on the building smacked of revisionist history about French collaboration with the Nazis.
The previous evening’s meal, at Brasserie du Casino, had been a highlight of our visit. It’s an old-world restaurant where waiters still wear long white aprons. Pictures of starlets who performed at the nearby opera house adorn the walls. There’s just one sitting at dinner – mostly comprised of locals. The menu states upfront that service is slow because food is cooked to order. Even the cheese cart has increasingly become a vestige of the past.
So what had I missed in not ordering the cheese course? I was determined to find out. Not by returning to the restaurant – there was no time for that – but by going directly to its cheesemonger. The menu, which listed local suppliers, indicated that those gorgeous selections came from Fromagerie L’Artisanale de Ris.
A quick online search suggested that most of this company’s sales take place from cheese trucks that travel to local markets – the sort of cheese mobiles that we have frequented all over France. But Fromagerie L’Artisanale de Ris also operated two stores, and one of them would be an easy detour on our drive to the Périgord.
It took us only 20 minutes to reach the shop in Ris Gare, south of Vichy. Our GPS didn’t register its exact address (9, Chemin de la Boire), but a billboard along the road alerted us when we were about a mile away. It was the sort of sign we would certainly have dismissed as inconsequential if we hadn’t been looking for the place.
About a minute later, we came upon a hand-painted cutout of a man holding a wheel of cheese. Next to it was a brown arrow labeled fromagerie. It pointed to a building on the other side of the railroad tracks. And there was the restaurateur’s cheesemonger. We pulled off the road, into a small gravel parking area under the chestnut trees. To reach the shop, which looked like an old country store, one needed to gingerly step to the other side of the tracks.
The aroma inside was ethereal. On one side were arranged the cheeses of Auvergne, many of which were represented on the cheese cart at Brasserie du Casino. On the other side was an even larger case of the house specialties, which come from the neighboring Allier region. There was brebis in all sizes and shapes, as well as wheels of cheese simply labeled tomme – a generic reference to flat wheel cheese that could be made of cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk. From the many markets I have visited, I associate this word with farm cheese.
Before making my selection, I asked for tastes. Then I chose a Brie made of sheep’s milk; a small round of fresh chèvre; a slice of sharp tome; and a large hunk of Auvergne blue. (When else would I have the chance to buy this favorite so close to the source?)
I was most excited to be able to purchase gaperone – a local cheese that I had read about but never eaten. It has a rounded top and a flat bottom, and tastes of garlic and black pepper. Its texture resembles a very dense cheesecake.
That, in part, stems from its base of buttermilk, or what the French call babeurre. The Oxford Companion to Cheese, which I carry in the Kindle edition during my travels, indicates that this cheese was an improvisation of peasants, who, after selling their butter and cream, were left with the babeurre. After mixing in some whey and maybe some curdled milk, they let it sit for a while. Next, “They strained it through a cloth, tied up the curds tightly, and hung the bundle from the ceiling near the kitchen fireplace,” writes Susan Herrmann Loomis in a contribution to that book. “A peasant family’s wealth was judged by the number of gaperon hanging from the rafters.”
Seasoning was presumably added to make gaperon more palatable. One imagines it might otherwise taste like sour milk. For me, this slice of folklore made the cheese that much more delicious.
This experience left me reflecting how in foreign travel, as in life, fate works in strange ways. Had I ordered the cheese course at Brasserie du Casino, it might have been a one-off. Instead, having tracked down the restaurateur’s cheesemonger, I was able to assemble many gourmet cheese plates of my own, and enjoy them long after I left Vichy.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of the five-time award winning book, Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.