A very drunk Englishman once said to me in a restaurant in Vence, “The French have 365 cheeses with only one flavour; the British have only one cheese with 365 flavours.”It would be easy to dispute the accuracy of this statement, but I have to admit that I can see a tiny grain of truth in it. I’ve always thought that British cheese is underrated in France in the same way that Canada is underrated in the United States: few people give much thought to its existence.
Finally a Paris fromager has decided to change that. I discovered Hugues Foucher the other day while strolling down rue Mouffetard, marvelling as always at the high concentration of cheese shops in this market street. It turns out that only one of these has its own cellars for aging cheese on the premises, and that one is Foucher.
When I saw the Stilton, Shropshire and 24-month-old cheddar on display in a prime spot near the entrance, I stopped in my tracks. This shop used to be a branch of Quatrehomme, and I hadn’t noticed until now that it had changed hands. Foucher explained to that he became a fromager entirely by accident when his uncle, Alain Quatrehomme, asked him if he would take over these premises.
“Now it has become a passion,” he said, showing me his glassed-in cellar at the back where he lovingly turns, prods and squeezes the cheeses until they have ripened to perfection. He sells only cheeses made from summer milk, meaning that at this time of year he stocks rare 30-month-old Comté and oozy Vacherin from near the Swiss border.
Unusually, Hugues operates this shop just about single-handedly, which might be what gives him the freedom to do exactly what he wants. When I asked him about the French reaction to his British cheeses, which he orders from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, he said the Parisians did take some convincing at first. “Not any more, though,” he laughed.
I could understand why when I tasted the Stilton-like Shropshire, which is orange veined with blue, and the nutty, creamy-yellow cheddar. These are cheeses that could stand up to the likes of an aged Comté or a roquefort artisanal. The French might be proudly chauvinistic, but their tastebuds don’t lie – which is why there was a steady stream of customers as Foucher and I chatted.
It was a pleasure to meet a Paris shopkeeper who loves what he does and is not afraid to challenge French tastes. I’ll be finding many excuses to visit Hugues again.