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French Cheese Served with an American Smile

Francesca Hanak at cheese market in ParisStory and photos by Richard Nahem, Eye Prefer Paris Correspondent

One of the highlights of visiting Le Motte Picquet/Grenelle food market during my Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes is having Francesca Hanak select cheeses for me. She always has such a pretty smile and terrific recommendations for our cheese course for our lunch. Like so many American expats in Paris, Francesca has an interesting background and a fascinating story of how she ended up in the French capital. Be sure to look for Francesca next time you’re at the Le Motte-Picquet/Grenelle market on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles and moved to New York as a young adult.

Why and when did you move to Paris?

I initially came to Paris to grapple with French. I graduated from Bryn Mawr majoring in Spanish with French as a second language. I was so stymied by French grammar that I took the advice of my last French professor and came to Paris after I graduated in 2003 to enroll in the Sorbonne’s intensive summer course for foreigners. One thing led to another and I am still living in this remarkable city.

One of the unexpected adventures I had was to serve as an interpreter and translator to an American Cabinetmaker enrolled at the prestigious Ecole Boulle. I spent several months in the shrine of furniture and decorative arts savoir faire, practically living in the restoration department. I was equally exposed to the fascinating corresponding disciplines such as Marquetry, Sculpting, Bronze Forging; French Polishing, Gilding – all the elements necessary to restore French period pieces properly.  The experience overwhelmed my linguistic capabilities and plunged me into a visceral contact of the history of France and its history of Art, two inseparable subjects.

How did you start working at the cheese stand?

Through a student at the Ecole Boulle I made the acquaintance of the owner of The Chèvres de Saint Vrain. Shortly thereafter I beganteaching him English and one day he asked me if I would be interested in working for him. With great trepidation I accepted and it has become quite possibly one of the most daunting challenges I have ever inflicted upon myself.

Can you give us a short lesson in “How to buy cheese at a French cheese shop/stand for Dummies”?

Decide before hand if your preference is hard or soft cheese…  There are usually three types of cheese represented in most cheese shops or stands: Cow’s Milk Cheese, Goat’s Milk Cheese and Ewe’s Milk or Sheep’s Milk Cheese. Each comes in an either wheel form (hard) or partially fresh (soft) that comes in a variety of shapes.   If you are unfamiliar with  either goat or ewe cheese stick to cow and ask for what is usually a mild, fruity and  universally loved cheese ” Comté” ( pronounced as if it was spelled Conté) however make certain the Comté is between 18 to 22 months, older Comté (more than 30 months) can be too mature for an under developed palate. Although this Gruyère style cheese is called a hard cheese or “pate dur” in French it is simply firm and smooth to the tongue. The finest Comté is AOC (Designation of Origin) green label. Industrial produced Comté is available in every supermarket throughout France but it has nothing to do with the quality and taste found in traditionally artisan made Comté. If a soft cow cheese is preferable “Brie de Meaux” is a gentle and easily spreadable cheese, best to be eaten soon after purchasing especially in the summer months.  One other possibility, especially if fat content isn’t an issue, is Briart Savarin (cow’s milk) a delicate, rich and sumptuously smooth cheese. The rind on all soft cheese is eaten and most of the hard cheese as well.

What are some of the misconceptions foreigners have about cheese?

One of the constant refrains of foreigners is “I don’t want a cheese that’s strong”.  Very few of the cheese sold in quality shops or stands will bite or overwhelming the palate.  However the notion of “strong” is often so individual and subjective that it poses a problem and only experience will be your guide.  Obviously cheese that has been matured or aged for more than two years is going to have a developed, concentrated  taste, not necessarily overwhelming such as the Vieille Mimolette….so as with wine you have to begin with the basics: Brie, Camembert, Saint Nectaire, Reblochon, Tomme de  Chèvre, Selles sur Cher, Comté.. all of which are mild and flavourful with different textures and rinds.

Cheese at a Paris food marketMany Americans are afraid to eat raw milk cheese for sanitary reasons. Can you reassure us about them?

The obvious facts about raw milk consumption are evident.  If raw milk is indeed dangerous why are the French still consuming it and why aren’t they falling like flies? The rules and regulations are so stringent in France that the chances of contamination are exceedingly slim. There is more of a chance of contamination with pasteurized products then fresh food. Make no mistake about it the French are very, very careful about what they consume. They are overcautious with fresh eggs and milk in general, they examine the expiration dates scrupulously and purchase just enough until the next market day.

What one cheese would you have to have if you were on a desert island?

Without hesitation: Green label AOC Comté and if that were not available then Beaufort Alpage, AOC would be my second choice. Beaufort is considered the elite cheese of the elite. Unfortunately it’s extremely expensive. There are at least three seasonal defined Beaufort and each offer a distinctive taste. It is highly appreciated among connoisseurs.

Any pointers on how to approach a cheese seller if it’s your first time?

As with all contact with the French, a salutation is obligatory. No matter how poor you may think you speak French you must muster a “Bonjour, Merci, and Au Revoir”. It may be fatiguing and feel exceeding strange but nothing will cause more strife with the French than ignoring their salutations. On the other hand nothing charms the French more than appreciative Americans that are interested and respectful of their products.  There are many Americans living part or full time in Paris that have become cheese consumers and they are among the most prized customers.

It is helpful to know that there are various types of cheese that can be cut thinly but others cannot. For example a large wheel can obviously be cut many times to the desired size. But smaller units of cheese cannot. Most round  or square cheese can be cut in half depending on the discretion of the seller, i.e. Camembert, Pont de L’Eveque, Briart Savarin etc. Mid-size cheese can usually be cut in half or in quarters, others must be sold by the unit. However if it is at the end of the market it is less likely that the vendor will be willing to cut a unit cheese in half.

How much cheese does a typical French customer buy for the week?

The clients that come to the Chèvres de Saint Vrain Stands are very faithful and constant, most come twice a week, especially if they are entertaining guests. The amount purchased varies from market to market.  Les Chèvres des Saint Vrain stand has three markets located near the metro stations: Alma Marceau, Maubert Mutualité and La Motte-Picquet Grenelle.  Each market reflects a particular clientele and life style.  La Motte-Picquet Grenelle, for example, has a mixed clientele consisting of retirees, housewives, husbands who do the purchasing on the weekends and tourists.  On an average a small household will purchase between 20.00 to 30.00 euro of cheese, including items such as butter, milk, eggs, fresh cream and yogurts. A larger family will purchase anywhere from 30.00 to 50.00 euro.  These figures can easily rise by 20 percent at another market. During the major holiday season the amounts almost double.  Obviously cheese is a serious staple for the French; its importance is comparable to fine wine.

What do you prefer about Paris?

What I have yet to take for granted are the attempts of the French to be humane and respectful to everyone, even if it can become a perfunctory reflex and not necessarily sincere.  It has taken time for me to develop this reflex that establishes the foundation of what I can only describe as a sort of civility. The grasping of hands, the salutations and the inquiries of how one is, are ways to neutralize the hazards and stress of living in an overly cramped city. The French are very sensitive to and appreciative of polite service. I value their contact because they are, for the most part, exceeding loyal and open once they trust your product and respect your service. They are not easily won over, but once you have earned their patronage, they remain true. The evidence is their willingness to stand in long lines.


Richard Nahem is a native New Yorker who now lives in Paris. A successful New York City event planner and producer of cultural events, he has worked with many celebrities including Sarah Jessica Parker, Whitney Houston, and Joan Rivers. After a teenage trip to Paris made him an instant Francophile, he visited the city frequently until he made it his home (in 2005). With 25 years of rave reviews from friends and colleagues, Richard decided to take his own private tours of “his” Paris public. His goal for Eye Prefer Paris Tours is to provide fun, adventurous, and exciting tours of Paris for the independent-spirited traveler.

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One Response to “French Cheese Served with an American Smile”

  1. Sweet Freak says:

    Thanks for the great interview, Richard! Now I’m hungry for cheese…

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