Confessions of a Cheese Smuggler
Elaine has done me a favor. A huge favor. As the public relations account executive for a major European hotel chain, she's managed to arrange several nights accommodation for my wife and me at a very swanky establishment in Paris, the Hôtel Lutétia. During the high season, mind you. "Darling"that's Elaine talking, not my wife; Elaine is very continental and always calls me darling "Darling, you're a very lucky man. The Lutétia is très chic." Elaine is from Los Angeles but she can get away with nonsense like this because she's married to a Parisian, though I doubt if her husband has ever said "trés chic" in his life.
Anyway, I'm indebted. "Sweetheart," I say to her (these silly endearments are a game we play), "what can I bring you back from the City of Light? Foie gras from Fauchon? A lacquered tray from Palladio? Tell me, mon petit écureuil, what do you desire?"
Elaine does a little trilling laugh over the phone that she knows drives me crazy. "Rien, rien, rien," she says. And then she pauses. "Unless...."
Ah hah! I think. Payback time. "Yes?"
"No, nothing. It would be an inconvenience."
"Tell me, my little ferret. What do you desire?"
"Well, I was just thinking.... Perhaps some cheese?" she replies, phrasing it as a question.
That's it? I'm going to Paris and she wants a wedge of fromage? Meaning to be generous, I suggest something special. "Pepper roll, perhaps? Cranberry-flavored Neufchâtel?"
"Epoisses," she growls. Of course, this is before I know what it is, so to me it sounds like she's just said "I pass" with a Brooklyn accent.
I ask her to repeat herself. "Ay-pwoss," she cries, and I have to admit it is the sexiest thing I've ever heard her say.
"But of course," I say, having no idea what she's just asked for. "A little Ay-pwoss."
Two weeks later. my wife, Jan, is sitting in a bathtub drinking Veuve Clicquot. She is in total heaven. She loves the antique stores around Carré Rive Gauche, the wild strawberry sorbet at Berthillon, and the silk underwear at Sabbia Rosa, but mostly she loves lounging in the oversize tub in our hotel room sipping champagne and admiring the Eiffel Tower, which juts up into the cloudy sky just blocks away.
I am sitting shirtless and shoeless on a green couch in the Hôtel Lutétia's Opera Suite, eating a nougat bar, wedge by wedge, speaking on the phone with Diane Mincel, an extraordinarily beautiful and charming (aren't all French women?) jeune femme from the hotel's marketing department who, during our three-day stay, has done everything but walk our dogand I'm sure she would have done that if we'd had one. I have waited until the last minute to secure Elaine's cheese, but we are leaving tomorrow, early, so I have asked Diane where, s'il vous plaît, I might find a little "Ay-pwoss."
Diane makes that peculiarly French blowing noise, like giving the raspberry without sticking your tongue out, which, loosely translated, means either "Your guess is as good as mine" or "What a silly question."
"Perhaps I can find out for you," she says. The French always qualify everything by saying "perhaps." This way they always look like heroes when they actually do something. "I will call you back immediately."
So now I am sitting in the Opera Suite, with its black-and-white photos of famous people I have never heard ofall French, no doubteating chocolate and waiting for Diane to call and tell me where I can pick up some cheese.
After half an hour, she rings me up. She is very excited. "I have found a place for you. Marie-Anne Cantin. It is not far."
I tell Jan I'm off to get le cheese. She doesn't care. She has half a bottle of the Veuve Clicquot left and the bathwater is still hot. So, with Diane's meticulous but complicated directions in hand, I head off in the general direction of the golden cupola heralding Napoleon's tomb, which, evidently, is near the cheese shop.
Let's pause right here while I'm getting a bit lost wandering up and down streets that, for some reason, all seem to end at the Parc du Champ de Mars. I want to give you some information that, at this point in our story, I'm unaware of but I'm about to discover. It's about this cheese. Epoisses. Epoisses de Bourgogne, as it is officially called. Here's what I'm about to learn: In France, where they make over 500 different cheeses, and a good Brie is as easy to find as a baguette, this particular cheese is rare and expensive. But in the United States it is more than rare. It is unavailable. It is unavailable because it is as illegal as Cuban cigars. You see, this unassuming little round orange bundle, which weighs about nine ounces and has something of a barnyard aroma to it, is made from unpasteurized milk. And in the good ol' US of A, raw-milk cheeses are absolutely, positively forbidden unless they have been aged for at least 60 days, which would sort of be like saying you couldn't sell fresh fish in a grocery store until it had been aged for at least two months.
There is a very good reason for this decree from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Bacteria that can cause diseases can be transmitted in raw milk. Nearly a century and a half ago, French microbiologist Louis Pasteur figured out a process to eliminate bacteria in wine by heating it. Later the process was applied to milk and came to be called, as every schoolkid knows, "pasteurization." Before Pasteur's process was applied, all cheese was made from raw milk. In France today only about half still is. But modern pasteurization, in which the milk is heated to 161°F for 15 seconds, can give milk a "cooked" flavor. And the whole point of having a fresh, raw-milk cheese, like Epoisses de Bourgogne, is so you taste the distinctive flavors that come from ripened, soft cheeses that have not had their rather pronounced (substitute smelly here if you want) aromas "cooked" away by pasteurization.
In fact, in France, many of these cheeses have a season. What the French call "la meilleure époque"the best time to eat them. What determines the best time to eat a particular fresh cheese? It depends on two things: The pasturage of the animal that is providing the milk to make the cheese and the ideal amount of time necessary to age the cheese. Take a nice artisanal goat cheese like Pourly. These goats graze on grass from the limestone plateaus of Bourgogne. The most abundant, flavorful grass is the new growth in the spring. And the cheese takes only two to four weeks to properly age. So the best time to eat Pourly is late spring to early summer. And if you are a true French cheese-geek, that is when you would buy it from your local fromager.
But I do not know any of this yet because I have not met Marie-Anne Cantin who, in a moment, is going to tell me everything I don't know about cheese before she allows me out of her shop with $40 worth of Epoisses. Let's meet her now, shall we?
Marie-Anne Cantin's fromagerie is inconspicuously tucked into a narrow little side street midway between the Eiffel Tower and Napoleon's tomb. She is sharp, perky, greatly opinionated, and reminds me just a bit of Debbie Reynolds. She is a second-generation fromager, having taken over the business from her father. I ask her if she has any Ay-pwoss, blowing out the second syllable as if getting rid of something nasty in my mouth, and she makes that same little raspberry noise that Diane made and leads me to one of her stunning little cheese displays where we stare, together, at four little creamy rounds that look like pumpkin-colored CDs. "Voilà!" says Madame Cantin, as if she had just produced photos of her grandchildren.
She carefully lifts one up to my face. I smile and sniff. It is...odoriferous. Seeing my reaction, Madame Cantin gives me my first lesson in French cheese appreciation: "The worse the cheese smells," she tells me, "the better it tastes." Then she shrugs and adds, "This is a hard thing for Americans to understand."
Since I'm not eating it, I don't care. I tell her it is a gift for a friend in California and ask if she can wrap one up. She asks when I am leaving. Tomorrow, I tell her. "Then I will deliver it to your hotel. What time do you leave?" When I ask her why I can't just take it with me, she sighs, looks at me sadly, and says it is simply not possible. That is when she delivers the bombshell: "You know, of course, this cheese is illegal in your country," she says. No, I tell her. I did not know.
And then she sees the problem: I am a dupe. A rube. A cheese mule, as it were. I have been asked to carry nine ounces of an illegal substance, something I know nothing about. So her mission is clear. If I am to go through with this, first I must learn what I'm dealing with. Before she will sell me the Epoisses, she insists on giving me a crash course in French cheesemaking (most of which I have already revealed to you).
Madame Cantin puts on a smart laboratory smock and leads me down some dark stairs at the rear of her shop to the cellar. Here she has two dark rooms full of stinky raw-milk cheeses. One room for goat cheese, another room for cow cheese. We enter the goat cheese room. There are hundredsno, thousandsof little white slabs of cheese on trays stacked from floor to ceiling being aged to perfection. The Fort Knox of chèvre. For the next hour or so, I learn everything there is to know about curds and whey. I learn about rennet and mold and brine. I learn about washed-rind cheeses, like Epoisses, which, as they ripen, are brushed with marc, a French alcohol. But mostly I learn about the joys of making cheese from unpasteurized milk.
Madame Cantin is a high priestess in the religion of raw-milk cheeses, and she works hard to convert me, putting out a large tray of different raw cow and goat-milk cheeses, any one of which would be illegal to sell in the United States. Seeing my trepidation, she says, "How can you be afraid to eat my cheese but not be afraid to eat a McDonald's hamburger?"
It is a question for which I have no answer.
I sample her cheeses. They are magnificent. She sees the look in my eyes and knows: I am a believer. Praise the lowly goat! Now she will sell me the Epoisses. The next morning, as we are checking out of the Hôtel Lutétia, a messenger arrives from Madame Cantin's fromagerie. He has a very large bundle for me. Two vacuum-packed parcels wrapped in tissue paper. About 20 pounds of unpasteurized cheeses, including all four rounds of the Epoisses Madame Cantin had in her shop. I also have Camembert de Normandie, Langres, Vacherin Mont d'Or, and a dozen different fresh chèvres, some covered in ash, others rippling with a pale blue mold, all completely and totally illegal to bring back to the States.
My wife looks at me with alarm. "What's that smell?" she says as I hand her the packages and ask her to carry them for me.
"It's nothing," I tell her. "Just a little cheese."
"Is it okay to bring back?"
I do my little French snort. "Of course," I lie. "It's nothing. Rien, rien, rien." And then, as the taxi pulls away from the hotel, the precious bundles of cheese sitting prettily on her lap, I give her a kiss on the cheek. "Trust me, darling."
While Traveler did not learn about the outcome of David Lansing's illicit cheese adventure, we did note that the postmark of his manuscript was from his California hometown and not Leavenworth, Kansas. The editors, nevertheless, advise compliance with FDA and U.S. Customs regulations on the importation of certain food items, even if solely for personal consumption.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.