getting educated at a french market

by Sharon Santoni

When I first lived in France as a young student, in a tiny flat in Nice, every day felt like an adventure.   I had a bicycle and would get all over the town, discovering what French living really meant.

Of course some learning just happens to us without even realising it.  We observe, we pick up as we go along.

Sometimes however we need A Teacher!
I liked to shop at the little street market close to my flat.  You know how it is buying for a girl living alone, you don’t really need that much, but you enjoy the detail.  I used to spend hours at the market, observing how the French bought their food, how interested they were in the quality and liked to know where it came from.
Nowhere was this more true than on the cheese stand!  To begin with I hurried past, hardly daring to stop and try because I knew so little about the cheeses.  One day I finally dared to stop at a stand and timidly asked for a goats cheese.
Little did I know that this first purchase would be the start of a gastronomical tour de France!
The cheese monger was charming, and maybe also a little bit charmed by a young foreign girl who had everything to learn!
Over the next few months he taught me about the flavours and textures of french cheese, carefully choosing which cheese I would try each week, and never failing to ask what I thought of last week’s selection!
Via the amazing cheeses in his store I took a virtual tour; to the east of Paris to try Brie, down the centre of France to discover Cantal; along the Swiss border to explore the Gruyeres and Emmenthals, or slightly higher the Munsters.    In the centre and south of France he helped me discover the various goat’s cheeses, including some of my favourite from Corsica.  The back up the south west via the sheep’s cheeses of the Pyrenees, the wonderful flavours of the Auvergne, blue Roquefort and of course all the cheeses from Normandy that I now know so well.

And today, if I buy cheese at the farmer’s market, I often remember my kind ‘teacher’, and how he gave me the confidence to discover so much more of France.[blank]


French Girl in Seattle November 2, 2012 - 1:59 pm

There you go: Learning by immersion, always a great idea, Sharon! I did not know you had lived in Nice. I just wrote about it on my blog – again! – this week. What a city, eh? 🙂 I have never met a Frenchman or Frenchwoman who was not interested in sharing their culture with an [appreciative] foreigner. After I spent a college year in Atlanta, GA as an exchange student, I remember my Dad "teaching" my American girlfriends for hours when they visited us in Paris. Poor things. They probably heard more than they cared to 🙂 Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

cindy November 2, 2012 - 2:09 pm

Love this post, brings me back to several weeks I spent In Paris in college. Years later, I am still so acutely aware of the culture surrounding me when in France, my favorite place to travel in the whole world!

carolyn bradford November 2, 2012 - 2:45 pm

What a sweet post! I would be in heaven trying to learn about French culture and especially their cheeses!

I Dream Of November 2, 2012 - 2:51 pm

What a happy post! I can almost smell the fromage. If given the choice between cheese and chocolate, I would choose cheese, so hanging out at a cheese stand in France is pure heaven. Love hearing about your early days in France, and how you came to know what French living meant! Happy Friday! XO

Mary Palumbo Collings November 2, 2012 - 3:03 pm

Cheese is a beautiful things and as you point out, so many to explore…
Ciao for now…

Kristie Franklin November 2, 2012 - 4:21 pm

What a wonderful man he was to teach you so much about the different selections of cheese. I bet you are a real connoisseur all these years later. I love cheese and when I go to the market and into the cheese area I become totally lost and don't know what to purchase. I've learned enough by trial and error to know which ones I like and which ones I'm not crazy about. I'm still a bit shy to try new cheeses as I'm afraid I won't care for them so I usually opt for the ones I'm familiar with. I wish I had an expert with me on these occasions. 🙂

Elle's Parisian Chic Blog... November 2, 2012 - 6:05 pm

What a lovely experience! how do you think shopping in France differs? Elle x

michele November 2, 2012 - 7:05 pm

love this post. i long for such an education someday. in fact, i think i can get my sis to finally take a trip to europe if i share your post with her since she lives for cheese.


Ido November 2, 2012 - 7:18 pm

How wonderful! my mouth is watering! Have a wonderful weekend.

Amy November 2, 2012 - 7:50 pm

Those "teachers" in our lives are priceless gifts, aren't they?

Lorrie Orr November 2, 2012 - 8:31 pm

What a wonderful way to learn about cheese. This post is a reminder to me to take time with people I meet during the day. One never knows the influence…

Barbara Lilian November 2, 2012 - 8:34 pm

Ahh !! French cheese… such a variety of tastes & different textures. Just had lunch with my daughter & as usual cheese was offered. Her mother-in-law had been visiting an aunt in the Auvergne & had brought back some St Nectare hmm.. it was delicious. it tasted nothing like the one from the super market. Love your visit to the market.

rusty duck November 2, 2012 - 11:40 pm

Oh your post has me craving cheese. Just love it! And agree, cheese over chocolate any time.

Amelia November 3, 2012 - 4:51 am

I've noticed that those who enjoy what they do are happy to share their knowledge with others. A kind teacher indeed to an adventurous and a smart protoge. Agree with cheese over chocolate anytime.

Kathysue November 3, 2012 - 5:37 am

I am so glad you did this post. When I was in Paris we had Some Cantal cheese and we loved it, I had forgotten the name until you reminded me of it. I have now pinned it so I will not forget. I am not sure we can find it here, but I will always have sweet memories of the nighttime simple spreads we would have with a baguette,cheese, fruit and wine. What wonderful memories.

Debbie November 3, 2012 - 7:06 am

Reading this I was reminded of how intimidated I first felt when when I went shopping for cheese on one of my first trips there. I could not believe how many choices there were. Good opportunity to attempt to try them all.
I also loved the yoghurts. I can also recall an encounter with the butcher in a Le Champion Supermarche who upon seeing our smiles and looks of surprise at how small the chickens were. "These are all natural and not full of hormones like those disgusting American chickens" The fact that we were Australian didn't seem to matter. This was all said with an indignant French accent of course. He was right though, the chickens were hormone free and tasted great.
I love how the French take food seriously and how it becomes a celebration of sorts and not just filling up the stomach until the next meal.

Deb November 3, 2012 - 12:11 pm

You have brought tears to my eyes. In my twenties I dreamed of having the very experience you described, but it was not meant to be, and I had almost forgotten that part of me thirty years later. I thank you for sharing a "slice of your life" with me on a daily basis. Your insight into what can make a life more simple, yet lovely nurishes me each morning. Gratitude from North Carolina!

Lost in Provence November 3, 2012 - 5:03 pm

One of my first jobs was at Dean & Deluca's in NYC. There was a whole balck market for damaged goods that couldn't be sold at the time and as I worked at the cookies and cakes counter, I had a lot of interest! Luckily for me, I was placed right next to the cheese stand. 🙂 I am still so grateful for those guys who so patiently explained things to me–it was a great preparation for moving to France even if I STILL have a lot to learn…
Bon WE!

Rachel November 3, 2012 - 7:15 pm

Have been fortunate to make a lot of trips to France, usually Paris, from the UK plus we have a lot of French cheeses here. Going to a Paris market, usually on a Sunday, and choosing a few cheeses to take back and have later, and then bringing some back with me on the Eurostar is one of the most enjoyable things to do. Never mind the pong coming from my bag – it's cheese! Have you tried Comte? Very nice grated on roasted or pan fried Brussels Sprouts. It's a type of Gruyere.

Noelle November 3, 2012 - 7:35 pm

Sharon, Thanks for the informative, savory and practical post on cheese. I'd love to share one of our favorite finds in Northern California. It's Di Raimondo's Cheese Shop in Paso Robles, CA. They not only offer cheese, meats and olives from around the globe (with samples as you shop, yum!), but their baked daily, salted baguette is as close to heaven as you'll come on this planet! Pair all that with a Central Coast wine and there you go. Here's their FB site: A toast to you, Sharon, and Bon Appetit!

Wild Oak Designs November 4, 2012 - 4:02 am

Everyday, I look forward to my journey to France and your post of cheese made me want to find a cheese shop like yours.
Whole foods is the closest I will find….
Thanks for your posts!

The Blue Farmhouse November 4, 2012 - 6:54 am

I think your blog is the teacher for the rest of us not living in France…but wishing we could!:)Keep the material coming…

sheepyhollow November 4, 2012 - 12:01 pm

Oh YUM! Best post ever. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

david terry November 4, 2012 - 12:45 pm

Dear Veronique….

I imagine that (like my partner, Herve, who moved to North Carolina twelve years ago) you have amusing tales of the first time/s you innocently bought the American grocery-store versions of"Mozarella", "Parmesan","Brie" and other perfectly predictable (i.e., you don't really have to consider them) European varieties of cheese. He tells of being particularly perplexed when, at a fancy dinner party, the host would flourishingly present a plate of individually-wrapped "vache qui rit" cheeses (according to Herve, these are meant for toddlers-at-the-table). I've assured him that even I recall when "La Vache Qui rit" was regarded as the height of cosmopolitan, discerning taste. It was FROM FRANCE!!

Apparently, his first boss (gathering how much the French love their cheeses), gave him the BIG "Hickory Farms of Wisconsin" cheese sampler-crate for Christmas every year….the box that contains that oddly sour "string cheese!", "Christmas Cherry Cream Cheese!", and those cannonball-sized "Party-Size Cheese Balls!" and a "Port Wine Cheese Log!" (the last two rolled, of course, in stale, ground nuts before their mandated shrink-wrapping in polyurathene).

Eventually, he learned that you could ORDER some really fine cheeses from Wisconsin or Vermont….and, these days, we have enterprising folks (even hereabouts) who've taken up making quite good goat cheeses.

I'll admit to being the person who finally introduced him to Velveeta (for non-American readers?….this is a violently orange-hued, 1/2-sugar-&-1/2-salt block of "slice-able" cheese-product which can be easily melted and used as a binder for practically anything. I expect you could repair gasket-joints on a car with the stuff). We both like Velveeta very much (more precisely, I APPRECIATE it when things are falling apart), to the degree afforded by the caveat that you don't ever confuse it with actual cheese.

All done and said, though? We just avoid cheese in this household and eat as much of it as we can when we're back in France (which is, fortunately, pretty regularly). In that respect, I regard cheese just as several of my smarter friends regard sex…the really good stuff is well worth the long wait and the dry-spells, and life is too short, in the meantime, to mess around with the mediocre.

Level Best as Ever,

David Terry (who has just/finally got a new computer…after six trips to my uber-geeky tech-man).

Carla Coulson November 5, 2012 - 10:58 am

A lovely post Sharon and what beautiful memories of your cheese tutor and how lucky to have literally eaten your way around France and learnt so much along the way without leaving your your local cheese stand! We are spoiled for choice in France such a wonderful selection, mmmmm delicious..
Carla x

Alison @ BaysideVintage November 5, 2012 - 12:13 pm

I can't wait to discover all the French cheeses one day soon in person!! Though I will probably return a few pounds heavier.. 🙂 Alison


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