Worth the Wait
The Ultimate Cheese Guy can be found on the Square d’Anvers on Friday afternoon and next to Saint Eustache on Sunday morning.
The best wine store I ever found in Paris closed a few years ago when the proprietor and sole employee retired, but when I was a regular I was in the habit of dropping by in the evening, telling him what I was going to make for dinner and how much I wanted to spend, and letting him pick the wine. It was an infallible system – he had personally selected all the wines in his store and could always come up with something in my price range that tasted just right.
One night I was planning to make duck filets in a sauce that has crème de cassis and brown sugar in it. I described the dish to him and he fell silent. A finger on his lips and a faraway look in his eyes, he remained speechless and motionless for a full minute. Then he looked at me and said, “It’s the sauce that makes it difficult.” Another minute went by in silence as other customers drifted into the store and waited. Then he asked, “Is it really sweet, the sauce?” “No,” I said, “more like sucré-salé.”
About thirty seconds later he got up and started walking very slowly toward the Loire reds, apparently still reviewing his decision. He finally settled on a Touraine that went perfectly with the duck, but my point here is that he had just spent a full five minutes selling me a single bottle of not-very-expensive wine while six or seven other customers quietly and patiently waited. The French are not known for their discipline, as anyone who has ever tried to drive through the automotive shoving match around Etoile in Paris will attest, but they are willing to queue up for quality food products and personalized service.
For a visitor to France wondering where to find good wine, groceries or takeout food, the queue at the food shop is a precious indicator: the best stuff is where the longest line is. “The Q Factor” isn’t arugula science but it works. Here’s another example: down the street from my place in the ninth arrondissement is a big intersection where there are two crêperies with sidewalk takeout windows (I didn’t realize this until I moved here, but crêpes in France are fast food) across the street from each other.
Both are open 24 hours a day, but only one has a line. And that one ALWAYS has a line – even at 3 a.m., as I noticed one night while walking home from a party. Figuring that there must be a good reason for 12 people to be waiting in the cold in the middle of the night, I stopped for a crêpe. I asked for the classic ham and emmental cheese combo, paid my four or so euros and ate it while walking home. On a cloud. It was hands-down the best crêpe I had ever had. Moist, fragrant, hearty… And this was no high-class operation. I’m sure part of the reason this one stand draws a crowd is the crowd itself: because it sells so many crêpes, all the ingredients are fresher and that gives them the edge.
Sometimes the queue is not represented by the presence of people but rather the absence of products. Another practical application of The Q Factor is how to pick a decent wine in a supermarket. I don’t like having to rely on a mass retailer for wine, but sometimes there are no other options, especially at odd hours or on holidays when the specialty shops are closed. What I do is look for the wine in my price and color category that has the fewest bottles left on the shelf. Presumably that’s the best quality for money. In fact it is very common to see a wine shelf in a French supermarket with one wine completely sold out and the others missing only a bottle or two, so apparently I’m not the only one to think this way.
It was The Q Factor that led me to the Ultimate Cheese Guy, a.k.a Jean-Louis Roger. He has a little stand out of the back of a van at the Place d’Anvers market. He only sells chèvres, which he and his family make at their farm in Chabris, and he’s known in one very small circle as the Ultimate Cheese Guy because his cheeses are in fact, according to an independent expert, the ultimate and definitive use of goat’s milk. The first time I went to the Friday afternoon market at Square d’Anvers I noticed a good dozen people waiting in an orderly line at his stand so I figured it was worth a shot. Once again, 50 million Frenchmen (give or take 49,999,988) were not wrong – I have never tasted a chèvre quite so smooth, mellow and flavorful.
He has a choice of different ages and textures and shapes, all superb, but my favorite is the three-week-old Valençay pyramid with the ash coating. Divine, with a rind that’s not too salty, a center that’s never chalky and a fine layer of rich, creamy goo just under the rind that I’m sure would make his goats very proud if they only knew.
As I learned right away, the Ultimate Cheese Guy always has a queue at his stand not only because his chèvres are so good, but also because he’s very gregarious and talkative. It’s always a pleasure to shoot the brise with him and try a slice of the cheese he puts out on the counter for sampling. The only problem is that he moves around town, setting up in a different market every morning and every afternoon, and sometimes he sells out in the morning and doesn’t come to Anvers. Then I have to catch him at Saint Eustache on Sunday morning*.
Unfortunately my vintner retired before I could realize my fantasy of playing “Wine Man Pinball,” sending him careening around the store from shelf to shelf, changing direction every time I mention a new ingredient in a ridiculously complex recipe I’m supposedly going to make. But the Ultimate Cheese Guy is still around. Should you happen to find him, join the queue. And be patient.
The Ultimate Cheese Guy, a.k.a Jean-Louis Roger, enjoying his work at the Anvers market:
*He can also be found at markets on the Rue St. Charles in the 15th arrondissement on Friday morning, Boulevard Vincent Auriol in the 13th on Saturday morning, and Boulevard de Grenelle in the 15th on Sunday morning. Otherwise, cheese lovers are welcome to visit his farm, Ferme de la Prairie (La Jarrerie, 36210 Chabris; tel.: 02 54 40 15 50), located near the Loire Valley châteaux, any morning to taste/and or purchase cheese and maybe sample a glass of wine. “Beware of my 85-year-old father,” he warns. “He’ll drag you right down to the wine cellar.”
© 2008 Paris Update
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