“How can you govern a country that produces 246 different cheeses?" said former President Charles de Gaulle during the student riots of 1968. Nowadays, despite laments the industry is in decline, its Ministry of Agriculture lists more than 400 cheese varieties in France.
At first sight, the cheese hall at Rungis. the massive food market for Paris that is the size of a small town, seems to have most of them. The pungent smell is intoxicating for a cheese-lover and the hall is lined with vast rounds of Comté and boxes of Roquefort and Camembert, alongside tubs of yoghurt and fromage frais, the soft cream cheese that is a French staple.
There are cheeses here made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk, with ewe’s milk making the strongest and most artery-clogging. The choice and variety is bewildering for the non-expert like me but no French shopper seems to suffer from a similar lack of confidence.
Of course, they have spent their lives being been trained by experts. The specialism of French shops comes as a surprise to those visitors used to one-stop shopping in supermarkets. While supermarkets are making their inroads into French life, a preference remains for buying produce from knowledgeable specialists, fruit from a fruit shop, cheese from a fromagerie, bread from a boulangerie and doing so every day.
A butcher will sell beef and lamb, but not always pork – for that you need a charcuterie – while chicken is at the volailler. The key to the French lifestyle is in shopping for the best ingredients, which is still a central part of everyday life for many.
The secret of French cuisine is not rich, complex flavors but fresh, high-quality ingredients that are cooked simply, with herbs that complement the taste.