When we first got to France last July, my younger son, aged 7, proclaimed that he hated stinky French cheese. (And for that matter yogurt and eggs, too.) For the first five days, he subsisted almost entirely on a diet of crème glacée (ice cream) and frites (fries.)
But it all changed when this desperate mother walked into a small restaurant in Menthon-Saint-Bernard called Le Confidentiel on a Friday morning. We were on our way to the lac d’Annecy to swim, and my males had run ahead. I was trying to figure out where we could eat a lunch that would somehow do the trick and get my kid, usually a hearty eater, to fill his belly with a good meal.
With a sinking heart, I saw a room with maybe six tables (could it have been more like 8?). Anyway, trop peu. I approached the woman behind the bar.
“Excuse me,” I said in my best French. “I’ve been looking at your menu and it looks amazing. And I am so hoping you might be open for lunch or dinner today…or tomorrow?”
“Oh no, we’re booked until Tuesday,” she said.
“Ah, dommage,” I said. And then, “Are you sure you don’t have anything, even, maybe, that table in the corner on the little porch?”
“Oh, actually, yes, let me check–yes, that will be free today. You can sit outside if you don’t mind?” she asked.
“With pleasure,” I answered. “Will it be ok that we are in our bathing suits?”
I then told her my problem: “I have a seven-year-old boy who needs to eat. We don’t do gluten or pork, but, other than that, everything is fine—just please, for heaven’s sake, get him to eat!”
She thought for a second and asked, “Does he like fish?”
“Yes, very much,” I said.
“Ok, I will come up with something. See you in an hour.”
On my way out, I did notice two Michelin stickers—one from 2011, a “Fourchette” (which is a fork and means it’s a comfortable establishment) and then a 2012 “Bib Gourmand” (which means that it’s great food at an affordable price). I was so thrilled I actually ran the rest of the way to the lake. I arrived panting and practically singing, “Lunch, lunch, we need to go eat lunch!”
Fanchon, who runs the front of the house and is a sommelier, and her husband, Sebastien, who works his magic in the kitchen, did make us an amazing lunch: There was a gazpacho that was essentially just vegetable juices with the perfect amount of salt and was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted; there was a grilled and peppered fish atop an eggplant jam and artichokes that had been steamed and unctuous summer vegetables cooked until silky and an amazing lake-fish bouillabaisse and a dessert that had popcorn on top. Reader, my little guy ate every single mouthful.
But it was the cheese that changed everything for him, the cheese that made him fall in love: It was a local tomme, which is a hard-ish cheese, sort of akin to cheddar, but without the crumble, produced from skim milk. It was served to us by Fanchon with a local honey and some–I think it was–bilberry preserves. It knocked our socks off. Though the most famous tomme is the “tomme de Savoie,” from that very Alps region where we were swimming and enjoying that wonderful lunch, this kind of cheese can be found all over France; indeed it can be a tomme by any other name and it will still smell as cheesy, nutty, earthy and wonderful.
In small towns all over France, in bars and markets and little local cafés we tried the local tommes (sometimes written with one ‘m;’ sometimes with two, who knows!). When I asked about the provenance of whichever tomme I was eyeing at the time, the answer was always, “oh there’s this guy up the hill there and he makes it!”
As soon as we got home from France, my little one looked at me with his big eyes and said, “Oh, Maman, I miss French cheese.” Without one single ounce of irony.
Back here in the U.S. no tomme we can procure tastes quite like the ones we got in France last summer–sliced and then handed to us on neat pieces of parchment, devoured in the car with baguette, olives or just broken in our hands and eaten straight. There is only one remedy for love, they say: to love more. I wonder if the only remedy for this cheese problem is…just to go back to France tout de suite?
Cook, watch, listen & read ce weekend (Cuisiner, regarder, écouter et lire):
By the time you all get this, I will be camping up in the North woods of Maine, hopefully warm in my sleeping bag, though it’s getting a little chilly out there folks! But before I go, Jean-Luc Godard is dead, and Andrea Meyer has this lovely remembrance of his work where she talks about the way he changed cinema forever (plus she’s added a great selection of his films that you can stream now.) Also, Emmanuel Carrère has a new memoir, called Yoga. It’s ostensibly about yoga, but it’s also about his life, wives and struggles with depression. Debra Spark reviews it, here. And Catherine Rickman writes for us about a new show opening at the Brooklyn Museum that celebrates the life and work of the French fashion designer, Thierry Mugler—the artistry of his work is so inspiring and worth reading about, truly—give it a few minutes this weekend, here.
Now, though I’ll be cooking up steaks over an open fire with a little blue cheese butter, and some roast potatoes on Saturday night, and then black and white S’mores after (I came up with this recipe this summer: it’s a piece of white chocolate on one side of the marshmallow and dark on the other, the entire thing smooshed between two graham crackers, or my favorite is these oat biscuits from the Scottish company, Nairns—pure decadence), when I get back, I am thinking about trying out this crazy simple French Lasagne recipe from Nigella Lawson. I will likely use turkey bacon instead of ham, I might throw some parsley and thyme in there, and I will use whatever squishy bread I can find—but it seems like the perfect Sunday night meal with a glass of wine, a little green salad and the first episode of the Great British Baking Show on the telly.
(Highbrow PS: Hold Me Tight, which Andrea reviewed last week—wow. Just watch it. Incredible. And…Lowbrow PS: Huge in France on Netflix. Absurd. Offensive. Sometimes very funny. Like the episode about being the Jerry Seinfeld of France with the real Jerry. So awkward, it killed me.)