Shopping for a cheese plate in Paris – what could possibly go wrong?
At the end of our street where Blvd St Germain meets Rue Monge is Place Maubert. A nondescript square by Parisian standards, it is however blessed with a tidy row of food shops that provide all the necessities – a green grocer, a butcher, a charcuterie, a fishmonger, a bakery, a cheese shop, a wine and spirits shop and a café. And three times a week there was a fresh food market out front. It was the perfect focal point for the neighbourhood.
By our third day in Paris, we had successfully shopped for groceries a few times, mostly in shops where all the goods were either behind a counter and the staff would help you, like at the bakery, or, in larger self-service grocery stores where we’d pick up a basket and help ourselves.
Without thinking about it too much, I decided to visit the cheese shop. We don’t eat that much cheese, certainly not by cheese connoisseur standards, but once again, this is Paris, and it was time for a cheese plate.
The shop, named Laurent Dubois, didn’t mean anything to me. For example, I had no idea that the words “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” underneath the store name meant that Laurent Dubois was recognized by the industry, and by extension the public, as an absolute master in his field, that he had passed a series of demanding tests and exams – the kind that reduce some to nervous breakdowns – and had been verified by a jury as reaching the pinnacle of his craft. None of that had registered.
Did I know that reviewers described it as “God’s cheese shop”, a “temple of cheese” or “one of Paris’s gems”? That it made the “top 10 of foodie destinations in Paris”? I did not. It was just a little local cheese shop to me.
Extending out front of Laurent Dubois are two glass cases with a display of cheeses. Inside, there are open refrigerated cases around three walls all with neat stacks of cheese, mostly in various sized wedges or rounds wrapped in clear plastic. There is no counter so the cheese is accessible to anyone in the store… in theory. A cash register sits next to a small table on one side, with another little table on the other side.
Two young men in crisp white aprons were helping customers. I had a walk around the small shop. I recognized some of the types of cheese but most were new to me. There was also a section of one case with milk, butter and individual serving size glass jars of yoghurt.
The clerks were busy, and seemed like they would be so for a while. So, having made my circuit, I picked up a few wedges of cheese, a nice assortment I thought, and four jars of yoghurt. I put them on the little table next to the cash register which wasn’t being used, and waited, cluelessly, as it turns out.
One of the clerks was finally finished helping his customer. He turned on his heel and glowered at me. In one handful, he scooped up my cheese and yoghurt and brought it over to the other table where he weighed the cheese on a small scale, punched numbers into an adding machine, thrust the receipt at me, and indicated for me to go over to the cash to pay. I took two steps to the cash where the other clerk took my money. In the meantime, the first clerk had bagged my purchases, handed me the bag and all but booted me to the sidewalk.
Well… what was that all about?
That Sunday, on our food tour with Wendy Lyn I told her about this. She laughed out loud and kindly claimed she had made many of those same mistakes when she first got to Paris.
So let’s count the errors of my ways.
First, I had simply walked into their store. Mistake number one. Then, because they were busy, there were no “bonjour monsieurs” exchanged. So, I’m already a dead man walking.
The coup de grâce was that, like a complete ignoramus, I touched the cheese! Not so many years ago, French citizens were guillotined for less. In doing so, it was also completely obvious I had no real idea what I had chosen nor from which shelf I had taken it from.
And lastly, I piled my choices by the cash register. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
To save you the complete ignominy of following in my footsteps, here’s the way we did it when we visited the shop with Wendy.
On the way in, we looked at the cheeses in the glass cases. These were their featured products, not necessarily available at all times. So they merited special consideration.
Then we took a step forward, but not right into the store, but rather to the threshold. And since the clerks were once again busy, we stood and waited. We did not enter. It would have disturbed the clerks and their customers, and besides, what would we do in there anyway?
When one of the clerks was free – the same gentleman who gave me the glaring heave-ho last time – he come over to us, and of course cordial bonjours were exchanged all around. A big greeting for Wendy, who knew them well, and a small hint of recognition for me. Now, with Wendy handling the translations, buying the cheese was a choreographed routine of questions and answers.
In general, what were we looking for today? An assortment of cheeses to make a cheese plate.
For how many people? Four of us.
When were we planning to have this plate? Tonight.
Did we have any favorites, or was there anything we particularly didn’t like? No, we were open to suggestion, and were looking for a nice assortment, perhaps with some choices that weren’t readily available at home.
Milder or stronger flavoured? Milder, please.
And with that, he went around the shop, picking wedges and pieces off his shelves, showing us each as he chose it, sometimes with an explanation, putting them into a little basket.
After he had chosen about six cheeses, he asked whether we’d like any others. Wendy suggested one she thought we should try from a small producer and we took that too. I also wanted some yoghurts which he took from the shelf for us.
There, that was it. Once again to the adding machine, a receipt issued much more gently this time, and knowing the routine, I walked to the cash, paid and turned back to get my purchase. Smiles and “au revoirs” and we were done. Very nice, very civilized.
Before we went in, Wendy had once again given us the lay of the land. First off, by chance, we were lucky to have one of Paris’s finest cheese shops in our neighbourhood. Unassuming on the outside, but a small staircase in the back goes down into three thousand square feet of cellars that extend out underneath Blvd St Germain, where cheeses are aging. Many are from artisanal producers and in some cases, this shop is the only outlet for them. Had we asked for something that wasn’t on the shelf, they would have gone into the cellars to get it.
Also, the shelves in the shop are designed so that each cheese is represented in three degrees of ripeness. Had we told him that we wanted our cheese for a few days later, he would have selected from a different shelf. So when, on my first visit, I had taken cheese from different shelves, it was completely obvious I didn’t know what I was doing.
As for the wedges of cheese, they were cut in what were deemed appropriate amounts for the number of people who would share them, i.e. two, four, six or eight so that it looks right on a cheese plate. Although you pay by weight, they look at a piece of cheese as being an appropriate size for a group of people.
And finally, anyone should have known that only the clerks touch the cheese. Here, it is simply unheard of that customers pick up pieces from the shelves even though they are wrapped. Aside from having their displays messed up, they are very conscious of any sort of contamination. In fact Wendy told us that she had asked to see their cellars, which they had agreed to, but it had taken a year to get the necessary government permission to go down there.
After the visit with Wendy, I went back to the shop twice again. This time, everything was charming and “correct”. The clerks were very helpful, and with a combination of my broken French and their acceptable English, I had fun shopping and walked out of there with extraordinary cheeses every time.
Was I upset about my first experience at Laurent Dubois? Not at all. I am grateful that they take such care, that they even bother to visit the small producers in the countryside to make exquisite cheeses available and that it matters to them which day I want to enjoy their cheese. All that, and a little education for bumbling tourists on the side. That’s the deep beauty of Paris.
So, are you ready for a little cheese shopping?