Tuesday, December 27, 2011

La Fromagerie - Let Them Eat Cheese

Everyone needs a Frenchman like Sebastien Tavel in his life.  This means you.  Mais pourquoi?  Because Sebastian possesses all the uniquely Franco-continental qualities that we Americans so desire in our French.  He's got great hair.  Looks dashing in a turtleneck.  Speaks with an impossibly charming accent.  Displays an impeccable taste in music.  But best of all, Sebastian owns a cheese shop.  And not just any cheese shop, friend-o.  Sebastien, along with his wife, Mary, the delightful American Southern belle she is, owns and operates the almost impossibly fantastic La Fromagerie in the historic Old Town, Alexandria, neighborhood of suburban Washington, D.C.

I confess to meeting Sebastien years ago and to loving him on first sight.  Here was a dark knight of the Washington food world, I thought.  A culinary hit man.  A gastronomic assassin in chef's whites who disguised a Marco Pierre White-sized passion for food perfection inside a French-hipster insouciance, a Gallic fuck-you kind of ennui, and who would just as soon as argue about the lasting importance of The Clash versus The Sex Pistols, than ever debate the merits of, say, sauteing your shallots in truffle oil instead of virgin olive.  

But as all too commonly happens in the food business, the trajectories of our respective careers required different courses, and I didn't see Sebastien again for several years until a sudden and unrelenting craving for really, really stinky cheese brought me, almost by accident, into Sebastien's La Fromagerie.    

Cheese guys are the esoteric wack-jobs of the food industry.  The Van Goghs of the business.  The purists.  And the culinary Green Berets.  They are the guys (and gals) who peddle still-living caseins of almost infinite variety of texture and flavor to a population of neophyte consumers whose grasp of cheese making and consumption goes little beyond Velveeta, and yeah, we know, that ain't cheese.  Those of us who work in the food business work with, and eat, cheese almost daily and know, truly know, precious little about the stuff.  Sure, I could hold forth, at appreciable length, about the differences between, say, Stilton and St. Andre, but the lecture would really be all smoke and mirrors, and dog and pony show, and about as nuanced as some professorial barfly discussing the difference between bourbon and tequila--an easy trick to pull off because each, Stilton and St. Andre, bourbon and tequila, is so profoundly different and unique.  We food pros are down with the wine guy.  We throw back with the sommelier several nights a week.  He's lied to our wives for us.  He's even driven us home and helped us up the porch stairs.  But the cheese guy?  He's the guy whom you really never get to know.  He's the mystery wrapped in enigma, the guy who played too much Dungeons and Dragons in his youth and grew up a gastronome.  He's also the guy who you, the food professional, with your profound lack of true cheese knowledge, never fails to disappoint.  

Except for Sebastian, the big daddy-o of French cool.  Now this guy has got your back.  Walk into La Fromagerie on any given day and stand slack-jawed before the cheese case, packed with often-local and always-artisinal American cheeses and Sebastian will guide you through an otherwise daunting gauntlet of choices.  He will ask you what you like in cheese.  Sharp or mild?  Goat or cow?  He will listen.  He will be patient.  He will let you speak.  He will nod.  Then he will remove cheese from his case, cut you a slice and offer it across the counter.  He will tell you to put it in your mouth.  And he will watch new culinary worlds open up for you and smile his Gallic smile.  Then he will walk you over to the wine case and teach you how to say vas te faire encule to your American compatriots with a perfectly delicious bottle of French rose.

My time in Paris, in that cold water flat in the Port de Orlean, taught me, out of an abject Orwellian poverty and necessity (re:  Down and Out in Paris and London, kids), that wine and cheese were French street food, that for less than five dollars American, I could walk into any Parisian grocery and walk out, minutes later, with a truly delicious and wholly satisfying lunch of wine, bread, and yes, cheese.  I spent glorious afternoons lunching in Pere Lachaise and on Montmartre, discovering revolution in the simple acts of drinking burgundy and eating brie beside the grave of Oscar Wilde, or on the street, with all of lower Paris laid out at my feet.  And if it wasn't to be cake for the Parisian masses, wine and cheese would duly, if not gloriously, suffice.  

To encounter Sebastien's La Fromagerie was no less a culinary epiphany.  Here was a guy, albeit one already known to me, who was offering the best, freshest cheeses and charcuterie to a tourist-heavy Old Town population greatly in need (whether the knew it or not) of gastronomic enlightenment.  Here was a guy bringing the Parisian street to the people.  Here was a guy selling a food product which, at its glorious best, and heterodox to the impulse of appetite, smells much like the white shit you dig out from under your big toe.  Here was a culinary gangster.  So I did what I knew I had to do.  I bought Sebastien's cheese.  I bought the Invierno, the Kentucky Tome, the Greyson, and I bought his charcuterie, the wild boar salami, the truffled salami, and his bread, and I went home and there went at this food purly intent on learning something, intent on truly paying attention to what I was eating.  And how often does that happen in this life?  The Japanese word for epiphany is satori, which translates as kick in the eye, not the actual eyes in one's head, I suspect, but the third eye of the soul, which for foodies might not be painted in red in the middle of one's forehead, as Hindu belief suggests, but sure-as-shooting tastes like pig fat and duck liver and, yes, leaves your breath smelling exactly like cheese.

So I ate my cheese and I ate my charcuterie and I told myself I had, if not learned about cheese, per se, learned what I loved about cheese, that its flavor changes with temperature and that it's flavor changes with the passing of days and that keeping it in my home fridge, exactly as it was, was like trying to keep a Genie in a bottle, or fresh bread fresh.  It was well above my pay grade.  And it simply couldn't be done.  

So when I hurried back to La Fromagerie to inform (or bore) Sebastien of my newly minted insights into all things cheese, I discovered this moody French bastard had now added a cafe to his cheese shop and that Sebastien, now once again sporting his beloved chef's whites, was churning out (from his open, one-man kitchen in back) such bold and daring lunch-time offerings as a braised pork belly sandwich, or a classic pork rillette, or house made head cheese and duck foie gras.  When I saw this, this miracle on King Street, I knew Sebastian was the mad French culinary genius I long suspected him of being.  I knew the day had come when a guy like me could walk off the street into a perfectly inviting cheese shop, sit down to a lunch of pork belly and cold French rose, and listen to Paul Simonon of The Clash sing The Guns of Brixton.  Then and only then did I truly know the new American food revolution had come.  Then and only then did I truly know the good guys had won.

Go to La Fromagerie.  Buy some cheese.  Buy some wine.  And for the love of the gods, buy some pork belly.  Happiness awaits.  Go and be happy.  And tell Sebastien I sent you.