Each autumn, wheels of perfectly ripened brie laced with summer truffles start appearing at cheese counters all over France. Grounded by the pandemic, I couldn’t be there to savor it last season. But in early December I stumbled upon a consolation prize: an 8.5-ounce round of double crème brie, packed in a wrapper with the whimsical label “Trader Jacques, Product of France.” With one bite and a pinch of imagination, I was transported to the open-air market in the Périgord region, where I first bought a similar silky substance that tasted of meadows and forests.
This time the purveyor was Trader Joe’s – the emporium that achieved a national reach by curating specialty foods culled from unnamed sources. And after ten months of pandemic living, with foreign travel unfeasible, I have devised a new pastime: weekly outings to the nearest Trader Joe’s to forage for French cheeses.
The roughly two-mile hike, from my home in Brooklyn, over the Gowanus Canal, is a far cry from strolling between the Left Bank and Right Bank of the Seine. But it still counts as exercise, burning at least some of the calories that are likely to be ingested from purchases.
During the B.C. (before Covid) era, when New York was a cultural haven, this activity wouldn’t have held much allure. Crowded aisles and long checkout lines were a deterrent to shopping at Trader Joe’s. Now capacity limits, meant to reduce the virus spread, have made the place serene and conducive to browsing. So after stocking up on ingredients for my favorite granola recipe, I decided to nose out the cheese.
Though the supply of truffle-studded brie would prove to be seasonal and ephemeral, return trips have unlocked other memories, in Proustian fashion, of past travels in France, and fueled hopes of future ones.
For five years, before Covid-19 upended our lives, my husband and I spent each autumn in France, living in Airbnb rentals and eating like locals. That meant shopping at weekly markets for regional and seasonal ingredients, and preparing most of our own meals. On Fridays and Sundays in Amboise, along the Loire River, I bought many varieties of goat cheese. In Basque Country, I listened to farmers rhapsodize about the fresh mountain air that makes the sheep’s milk cheese that they sell taste unique. And at a farm in the Auvergne region, I purchased a wheel of Saint-Nectaire that hinted of the straw, juniper berries and buttercups the cows had consumed months earlier.
The French call this terroir – the flavor that food and wine derive from the soil, atmosphere, weather and other factors associated with their production. It’s less noticeable in most cheese that makes its way to the U.S. market – partly because it tends to be produced in factories, rather than on farms. These include many varieties of cow’s milk brie, and similar soft cheeses with a white mold rind. There’s the pungent, custardy Délice de Bourgogne ($12.99 per pound at Trader Joe’s), for example, and Saint-André ($11.99 per pound), which almost has the consistency of butter. Both of these triple crème cheeses (a reference to their high fat content) are 20th-century creations.
That said, they are delicious, and cost at least a few dollars per pound less at Trader Joe’s than I have seen them fetch elsewhere. They are also widely available at French hypermarchés, or supermarkets.
Though many French people shop for cheese this way, my heart belongs to the fromagerie, which may be a freestanding cheese shop; a counter at les halles (a covered market in the middle of a city or village); or a cheese truck that travels to weekly markets.
They pride themselves on their sources, whether local or national, and slice cheese to order. While other customers wait patiently, it’s customary for the cheesemonger to inquire about your preferences – for example, strong or mild, creamy or dry – and in pre-pandemic days, carve off a ribbon of hard cheese for you to sample. Since home storage can’t replicate their own cellars or caves, they won’t object to your buying just a small quantity; ideally you should consume their wares at the perfect ripeness. And no matter how little you buy, the vendor wraps your purchase in paper so that it looks like a gift.
One of the most popular cheeses in France (and sold at Trader Joe’s) is Comté – a hard cheese made from raw cow’s milk. Produced since at least the 13th century, it comes in a wheel that is about 25 inches in diameter, four inches thick and weighs nearly 80 pounds. One droll cheesemonger at the Sunday market in the village of Montsoreau, in the Loire Valley, insisted I step up into his truck and pose for a photo holding a wedge so big that it looked like an enormous fan. As I examine the picture five years later, being a bit better educated, I realize from the label that it was the highest-grade Comté available. No wonder he was so proud.
Comté has a nutty flavor reminiscent of Gruyère that fades to sweetness on the tongue. When ordering it in France, one must be prepared to answer the question, “Quel affinage?” That’s a reference to the number of months that the cheese has been aged and matured. Options typically range from about 9 to 24 months; sharpness and price increase accordingly.
The most delicate Comté I have ever eaten came from a fromagerie called Le Trou de Souris (the mouse hole) in Besançon, a city in northeast France. Situated in the Franche-Comté region, where cows graze on meadow grass in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, this cheesemonger had ready access to the prime Comté producers. And my September 2019 visit apparently coincided with fine young Comté reaching the market.
While traveling, I love the versatility of this cheese, which can be a picnic for one meal, then grated and melted over sautéed leeks or folded into a quiche. During the pandemic, I have combined it with sharp cheddar to make a splendid riff on Southern macaroni and cheese.
At $11.99 per pound for Comté that has aged at least 18 months, what’s sold at Trader Joe’s is a good deal; Comté cured only half as long fetched almost twice as much at my neighborhood cheese shop. I tried both, and found them indistinguishable. A sign of quality in the former was a pea-size pit in the pate (the section between the rind). Known as an “eye,” it is created by carbon dioxide given off by bacteria during affinage, and is one indication of a well-cured Comté. Removing the suffocating cellophane wrapper from each of these cheeses and storing them in a breathable bag helped enhance their initially bland flavor.
I similarly repackaged the so-called Mini Basque cheese ($13.49 per pound) that I bought at Trader Joe’s. With its wax-coated rind in a basketweave pattern, this mild, semihard sheep’s milk cheese (brebis) looks and tastes exactly like that sold in European supermarkets, and in the U.S. under the Petit Basque label. This cheese, with toasty overtones, is delicious for breakfast, accompanied by a baguette spread with jam and an espresso. On a chilly afternoon, it’s a perfect snack paired with a mug of hot apple cider.
In Basque Country, most people buy brebis cheese directly from a producer, as I did during a total of several months spent in the region. It’s a competitive market, with cheese contests judged by better noses than mine. Following the crowd that queued up on a 30-minute line led me to the vendor who became my preferred source – at the Tuesday- and Friday-morning outdoor market in St. Jean-de-Luz.
Among other things, he sells Ossau-Iraty, a semihard sheep’s milk cheese that tastes a lot like the Petit Basque, but without the wax coating on its rind. During long waits at his stand I have witnessed other apparently loyal customers buy many wheels of it at a time. I was never sure whether they were consumers laying in enough for the winter, or cheesemongers from other parts of France who planned to resell it.
Nostalgic for the carefree days of wandering the cobblestoned streets of this former whaling village, and other quaint French towns, I was intrigued by a cheese at Trader Joe’s called Fromage Pavé ($5.99 for a 7-ounce square). The word pavé means cobblestone, and can refer to any small, square-shaped cheese, regardless of the type of milk used to produce it. This one, roughly a three-inch square made from cow’s milk, is reminiscent of Pavé d’Affinois, which is produced in the Côtes du Rhône region, near Lyon.
The late Pierre Androuët, whose parents founded the Paris cheese shops that still bear the family name, would likely have eschewed the packaging: The cheese comes wrapped in wax paper and wedged into a cute cardboard box printed to look like wicker. “In general, you should prefer cheeses which can be seen to cheeses which are hidden away in cleverly designed packages,” he wrote in his 1973 classic reference book The Complete Encyclopedia of French Cheese.
But this cheese, with its washed rind that has a texture resembling pinstripes, could fit in the display case of many fromageries that I have visited. Its triple crème pave is so mild that you can spread it on your croissant for breakfast, or eat it for dessert with a handful of candied walnuts. And at a time when you can only dream about poking around charming French towns, the Fromage Pavé can certainly pass for comfort food.
If, on the other hand, brie is your comfort food, Trader Joe’s carries at least four varieties. I chose the one labeled “Traditional French Brie” ($9.49 per pound) because it had a cracked crust, signaling ripeness. “I can smell it all the way upstairs,” remarked my non-cheese-eating husband, when I arrived home. The musty aroma took me back to La Maison du Fromage – a legendary Paris cheese shop that we visited just a little more than one year ago. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.
Of the Trader Joe’s French cheeses that I sampled, the Roquefort – a tangy, salty, soft cheese made of sheep’s milk ($11.99 per pound, compared with $19.99 at a local specialty food shop) – was the only one with the AOC label. An acronym for appellation d’origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin), it’s part of a modern system to regulate how agricultural products from particular regions are labeled. With Roquefort, it means they must meet criteria regarding the type of sheep; what they are fed; and the location of the caves where the cheese is produced. Only cheese that meets the specified criteria is allowed to carry the AOC label – a red-and-yellow starburst.
Moist, buttery and well streaked with distinctive blue veins, the roughly five-ounce piece from Trader Joe’s went a long way toward enlivening omelets and fruit plates. I have never been to the town for which it is named, but a visit to the caves where it’s produced is on my bucket list.
New Year’s greetings from a friend in France whetted my appetite to resume those journeys. Her list of wishes for 2021 included nos libertés retrouvées – which, roughly translated, means “our regained freedoms.” Now that vaccinations have begun, I’m bullish on the prospect of future travels. But until it’s safe for me to buy French cheese at its source, at least I won’t go hungry.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide.