On January 14, 2003, Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie took us for a midwinter journey to the Savoie for a plate of Alpine cheeses, a slice of Lionel Poîlane’s famous pain levain, and a glass of wine.
Cheese, bread, wine – these ancient fermentations draw their producers, distributors and merchants into the very fabric of their maturation and preservation. The inferior products of today’s mass production only serve to intensify the devotion of those who still cling to the ancient methods. Of these three, cheese still involves the ultimate seller – the fromagier – in actually bringing it to fruition through the demanding craft of affinage.
Patricia Michelson is one its leading practitioners, and she has the gleam of the true believer in her eye. Inspired by her first experience of Beaufort gruyère, she undertook to distribute her Savoie fare in London, first from a garden shed, then from a stall on Camden Lock, and today in a pair of shops which includes a shimmering white cavern newly opened just off Marylebone High Street.
The merchandise on offer still centres around cheese, but it now includes virtually every aspect of the basic culinary experience. Arriving at noon, you could easily spend half a day, eating the plate de jour from the shop’s newly-opened kitchen and then slowly browsing around the collection of carefully selected wines and foodstuffs.
Patricia’s shops are open seven days a week. She casually remarked that she is there every day except on her buying trips abroad – and even these are limited to three-day periods at the end of the week when the cheeses can briefly dispense with her ministrations. These are not the work patterns of an empire builder – don’t expect to see a La Fromagerie line of factory cheeses in your local Tesco.
Our culinary journey began with the cheese which had made it all happen. It was a Beaufort d’alpage, made in summer up in the mountain pastures, where the cattle feed on delicately flavoured grasses and wild flowers which give the cheese its identity.
Also on our plates was a Vacherin du Mont d’Or served at the height of the season. It’s a quid cheaper at Selfridge’s, but there it comes straight from the plastic. Patricia opens hers up, washes it in wine and doesn’t serve it until it’s ripe. She also leaves it in the mountain caves of the area where it’s produced until it’s ready to be transported.
Not often seen outside its home was a rebluchon-type cheese from the Abbye de Tamié. Thirty local farms supply the milk. Patricia gets the cheeses young so she can mature them to her own exacting standard.
A sharper edge to relieve the general richness was provided by a Bleu de Gex, similar in style to a Stilton.The irregular colour is produced solely by piercing, which allows the bacteria to penetrate.
The evening’s cliff-hanger was a ewe’s milk cheese which arrived at the last minute, a Tomme de Brebis made last November. It was still young but fresh and lively.
The unscheduled bonus was a superb tartiflette, a modern French classic made that afternoon by the cook in Patricia’s new shop. (It was much better than the one I had in Paris a couple of months ago.) She shared the recipe with us:
Rub the inside of a shallow dish with garlic. Slice potatoes to coin thickness. Layer them into the dish with pancetta which has been lightly cooked, together with slivers of rebluchon, a few dabs of crème frâiche and some torn sage leaves, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Cook in a 200C oven for about half an hour or until the potatoes are completely cooked. The dish reheats beautifully – if there’s any left!
©2003 John Whiting