It’s the holidays, which means three things in my book: cheer, chocolate, and CHEESE!
Okay, it means wine and pretty lights, too, but neither of those start with ‘ch’ and a girl has to grab the reader one way or another, right?
Seriously, though, if you’re not already fêting the holidays with a proper serving of fromage, this is the year to start. Because nothing says festive like a creamy piece of fatty deliciousness smothered onto warm bread.
Bonus points if the cheese is truffled, or so drippy it requires a spoon.
In fact, truffled, spoonable cheese is what the French fêtes are all about. (Don’t know which cheeses to choose? Checkout my holiday cheese-buying guide. I’ve got you covered with American equivalents and where to buy anywhere in the U.S. For mes amies in other countries, the guide is still helpful, and don’t hesitate to reach out if I can assist directly!)
But like so many things French, cheese can be intimidating. Between all the mold and bacteria talk, hard-to-pronounce names like trappe d’Échourgnac, and the rise of hashtag-worthy platters fit for their own frame at the Louvre, even a well-versed hostess can find herself at a loss.
Well, I have good news!
I sat down with Laurent Dubois, owner of one of Paris’s most prestigious fromageries, to get you the low-down on everything you need to know to go from cheese-scared to cheese-star. Your holiday dinner will never be the same.
Laurent Dubois: Ambassador of Cheese
Laurent Dubois knows cheese. He’s a third-generation cheesemonger who ranks as one of France’s revered “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France,” or Best Craftspeople. In France, this is known simply as the MOF award, a prize so prestigious that the President himself hosts the post-awards-ceremony party.
With a cut throat competition every three years in over 230 categories, this is France’s Olympics of craft. MOF is a lifelong title and winners become instant demi-gods. None more so than the winners of the cheese category, of which there are only 24 in the entire country. Including Monsieur Dubois.
“Cheese is a noble thing. A thing of wonder.”
Between three stand-alone shops in Paris and one tasting space at high-end food department store, le Printemps du Goût, Dubois is a household name among the city’s chicest cheese connoisseurs.
Step into his perfectly climatized shop in the historic Latin Quarter, and you’ll find 300-odd raw-milk cheeses carefully presented like jewels. You’ll find them grouped in individual displays, stacked into graceful towers and under glass bells.
M. Dubois has spent 25 years cultivating relationships with the best producers across France and Western Europe, where he visits the farms personally. The cheese labels in his shop name the producer, a rare sight, even in France.
“Cheese is a noble thing. A thing of wonder,” M. Dubois tells me over un café. We are seated on the terrace of a nearby bistro, under a bright red awning that dominates the western corner of the Place Maubert market square, just across the river from Notre-Dame.
It’s well known that Mr. Dubois carries some of the best aged Comté in Paris. No surprise, given that he was appointed an official ambassador by the Comté committee that oversees the production of this beloved Alps cheese.
Perhaps what M. Dubois is best known for, however, are his signature creations.
In a case in front of the shop, you’ll find the beloved Roquefort Carles that M. Dubois and his team layer with quince jam made on-site. It’s a true salty-sweet revelation. Just add butter. (Trust me.)
Nearby are fresh, tangy goat cheeses topped with everything from crystallized balsamic vinegar mousse to walnut-fig jam, sitting next to a Camembert soaked in apple brandy.
Then there’s my personal favorite, the seasonal crémeux aux marrons glacé, a double-fat cow’s milk cheese with sweet candied chestnuts.
Waiting for you inside is the Tartuffe, a buttery, nutty sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque country, similar to a Spanish Manchego. Except Mr. Dubois and his team cut it open and add three layers of truffles. Whatever your feelings on the long-saturated truffle trend, the Tartuffe is simply divine.
“There’s no reason to have limits.”
As an American living in Paris, I had to ask – What does this master of French cheese think about cheese culture in the good ol’ U.S. of A.?
He’s hesitant to say, since he hasn’t traveled much in the U.S., but when I ask him about North American versus French cheese plates, he agrees with my suggestion that American platters tend to be more elaborate.
M. Dubois first focused on cheese platters around the year 2000. At the time, he opted for variety, like a spread of breads and confitures. Today, he prefers to keep things simpler and enjoys “working around a theme, like a color.”
“But there’s no reason to have limits,” he adds. “If you want to put a lot on the plate, why not?”
When it comes to the perfect cheese plate, Mr. Dubois doesn’t care whether you put six jams and half a dozen spiced nuts on the platter, or if you’re all about cheese on cheese.
M. Dubois does care whether you honor the product and the people behind it. Below are his tips for doing just that.
9 Steps to Your Best Cheese Plate
1. The most important rule: choose cheeses “that respect the rules of production, the well-being of the animal, the terroir [the place of production], and the pleasure of taste.”
A big part of that is searching for raw-milk cheeses, since pasteurization kills flavor and is often linked to industrial farming. If you’re in a country that limits sales of raw-milk cheeses, you’ll generally have better luck with aged cheeses (over 60 days) or buying direct from producers at farmers’ markets or on the farm. (My cheese-buying guide can be helpful for finding raw-milk cheeses in the U.S.)
2. Right alongside his first rule: “Respect the seasons.” Yes, cheese has seasons. And M. Dubois is adamant that you learn about them.
“Respect the rules of production, the well-being of the animal, the terroir, and the pleasure of taste.”
3. While we’re on the subject of respect . . . We also need to “respect the look of the cheese.” Cheese isn’t chocolate, explains M. Dubois. You can’t – and shouldn’t – try to sculpt it. Someone made this cheese to look a certain way, and your guests should get to see it.
On that note, don’t cut the cheese too much beforehand.
“A sliced baguette and a whole baguette are not the same product.”
Same goes for cheese, which will dry out quickly if cut into small pieces.
“A sliced baguette and a whole baguette are not the same product.”
4. The presentation should be clean and organized. One knife per cheese, one spoon per jam.
5. Feature a variety of textures and flavors, M. Dubois explains. Think creamy, hard, mild, and strong.
6. When in doubt, consider the three W’s: “Who will be eating it, when, and with what?” Or what M. Dubois describes as “the circumstance of consumption.”
The three W’s: Who, When, With What?
7. One of those circumstances of consumption that is too often overlooked, especially in fast-moving Anglo countries: timing. Cheese should never be eaten fast.
“Just as cheese requires time to ferment, it takes time to digest. Slow food,” he adds, in English.
8. Find a cheesemonger and build a relationship with them. “They will help you discover new things.”
“Open your spirit. You must think, not just eat.”
Ask them about each cheese you serve, “so you can share that knowledge with whoever you’re eating with.”
9. Anyone can eat cheese. But to appreciate it, “you must open your spirit. You must think, not just eat.”
Ultimately, serving cheese is about respecting the people who made it.
“Every person will create [a cheese] that reflects their personality. . . their talent, inspiration, and history.” A great cheese platter will do the same.
“And what cheese do you eat most often?” I ask as we finish the interview.
And what does he serve it with?
“Le fromage. Le pain. Le vin.”
“Cheese. Bread. Wine.”
Want to explore the world of cheese in Paris? Email me for a tour.