Don't Let These 'Chariots of Cheese' Pass You By
When it comes to the high-end cheese carts of France, resistance is futile.
Haute French dining takes fortitude. After a dozen florid dishes, you’re in danger of fatigue. But, courage! A chance for revivification comes just before dessert. The wholesome provender of farms from the Alps to the Pyrenees: It is the cheese.
Forswearing humble origins, the cheese sallies forth like the Sun King, paraded to you on a bespoke cart that the French dub le chariot de fromage: a brushed steel, steampunk duplex on stroller wheels at Alain Ducasse at Paris’ Plaza Athénée; a magician’s box at Le Cinq at the Four Seasons in Paris, your server unlocking the top and front to reveal mirrored sides that reflect the fermented sorcery within, an illusion of fromage infini.
Though learned observers like Lucas Cohen-Aubier, former maître d’hôtel at Paris’ Guy Savoy, say that natives nowadays eschew the cheese, never you mind: You are a visitor to France, and there is no sense in doing as the French do and missing out on their milk-derived masterpieces. Anyway, once you’ve set your eyes on an oozing, pink Époisses de Bourgogne, a cow’s milk puck washed in salt and marc (a liquor distilled from pomace, the skins and seeds leftover from winemaking), or a creamy, crumbly ivory cone of Brousse du Rove, a fresh, sweet, goat’s milk variety from Provence; once you’ve breathed in the assorted perfumes, a “symphony” of odors Émile Zola cataloged as “gamey,” “musty,” “flute-like,” “shrill,” “sugary,” “damp,” “overwhelming”—well, unless you’re endowed with a Parisian’s restraint, it is impossible to resist. Even the most countercultural revolutionaries succumb to its siren call: Yippie prankster Abbie Hoffman famously impersonated a Playboy writer and raided the “wondrous cheese cart” at Le Bistro d’Hubert, now, alas, 10 years gone from Montparnasse.
Your chariot awaits. The server can help choose a few morsels from among the 10 to 20 seasonal selections. Many are made with lait cru (unpasteurized milk) which, for flavor, makes all the difference. Fresh or aged; from goat, sheep, or cow; orange-yellow or cobalt-veined; funky, grassy, or nutty—France’s 1,000-plus cheeses are so charismatic that they’re largely served unembellished, but for good bread and, say, a smear of honey pulled from the hives atop Guy Savoy or dried fruit and a glass of Sauternes at Epicure at Le Bristol hotel.
American travelers might behave like novelist Peter Gethers’ partner in his memoir A Cat Abroad: “Janis, as usual, kept her dignity until the huge cheese cart arrived, then she lost any sense of propriety and basically just kept screaming out, ‘More! More! More!’ to the server.” But who can blame us? There is delicious genius in chefs’ creations. But for raw, unadulterated pleasure, the cheese stands alone.