Le dîner des fromages



By Francesco Bianchini



We were at last invited to the famous cheese dinner. It had been talked about for months, and now that we were just about to leave Paris, the dinner was finally set. When we’d first visited the apartment on the Île Saint Louis, and had seen the river framed by the wide windows beyond the tops of the poplars on the Seine, we were convinced that we couldn’t live anywhere but there. It was necessary at all costs to have that apartment, not to let it slip away. We were informed that the owners – proprietors of the entire building, both quay side and courtyard side – insisted on meeting all aspiring tenants personally. So we returned, dressed to the nines, and convinced that only an equivalent of the Duc de Guermantes could reign over that jewel of seventeenth-century sobriety, attributed to Le Vau, and set right between the more ostentatious Hôtel Lambert and Hôtel de Lauzun. We were received on the piano nobile in a delightful drawing room panelled with period wainscoting and hung with tapestries. We talked about this and that, with many witty remarks from Monsieur, but when Dan spilled his coffee with an involuntary kick to the Moroccan tray of highly-polished brass, I read a fraction of horror in Madame’s eyes. 


We must not have made a good enough impression despite our best efforts, because the agency let us know that in the absence of an employment contract, our last three pay slips, our last tax return, and the last three rent receipts from the previous tenancy, the owners demanded two months’ deposit and a year’s rent in advance. After all, Dan was officially retired and I was on sabbatical leave, hardly the most reassuring circumstances. But we had money in our pockets from the sale of our house in Umbria, so eagerly agreed to the terms. On a radiant October afternoon, with the leaves beginning to turn yellow on the Quai d’Anjou, we were ceremoniously handed the keys. It was on that occasion that the dîner des fromages was mentioned for the first time, almost as if we were long-time acquaintances reunited by chance after years. We later discovered that all the tenants on the street side (those on the courtyard side were, in fact, considered second-class) were entitled to this thoughtfulness – if only because of the exorbitant rent we all paid. 

Paris, for those who were not born or grew up there – thus having some kind of citizenship rights – is a dream made of the tenuous fabric of yet more dreams. Even as your residency there becomes reality, you always feel a bit an outsider; usurper of an almost ethereal sphere that will never belong to you. Although the apartment was partially furnished, on our first day we assessed the paucity of the kitchen, which lacked counter space, had only two camp-like cooktop burners, no oven, a bulky and poorly positioned refrigerator, and wall units designed with murderous angles and placed at head-bashing height. But who cared? We were installed onboard the most fascinating island in the world, in the center of the most extraordinary city, and with a view that would never grow stale. We hurried across the Pont Saint Marie to the Marais, on the opposite shore, and shopped at the local Monoprix without really knowing how to proceed. Our first meal – I’m ashamed to admit – was a package of frozen cod with cream and chives that we had to pop in the microwave. So for good reason, we first turned our attention to the kitchen and took to haunting thrift shops and junkyards near the Place de la Bastille. After a little luck, and thanks to compliant taxi drivers, we carted an antique sideboard and some better shelves to upgrade the kitchen, plus a dining table and chairs, and in no time had a moderately functional kitchen and a decent place to eat. 

 Saint Paul’s dome and the Marais under a frosting of snow, from our front window

Every morning, in front of the large kitchen window overlooking the courtyard, Dan prepared breakfast while from an opposite window – the unfashionable côté cour – a young couple performing the same ritual exchanged silent greetings, like fish from two separate bowls. We had rented the same year that renovations began on the Hôtel Lambert that had been purchased by the brother of the Emir of Qatar – in reputedly the most expensive transaction ever recorded in Paris. The mice that had lived decades in undisturbed splendor in the garden, the attics, and in the recesses of that old pile soon began migrating to adjacent buildings. It was enough for one to trot across the courtyard to give our cat, Arcadio, the surety of fabulous game-hunting. Thus around four o’clock every morning, we’d open our door to let him out on the landing, perhaps the only black cat in Paris who, at that early hour, pattered down three flights of an elegant Louis XV staircase to practice his hunting skills. Way before the garbage men arrived to empty the bins, Dan sallied forth, bundled against the humid November mornings, with Arcadio hooked to his leash, and man and cat both went into the streets for walks along the river and around the sleeping neighborhood. Though traffic buzzed on the opposite bank of the Seine, all was quiet at that hour on the Île Saint Louis; no cars, no pedestrians, just darkness interrupted by the amber halo of streetlights. But when a street cleaner or trash truck would rattle a little distance away, Arcadio pulled Dan home, unerringly stopping precisely in front of our forest green front door.

Looking out over the unfashionable côté cour

Winter came and Paris was whitewashed a couple of times before Christmas. At the thought of our books languishing in a cellar in Umbria while we basked in the warmth of the living room fireplace, we decided to bring our things from Italy. During the move, we crossed paths with Madame on the staircase who, as she swiftly slipped the key into the keyhole, and before disappearing into her apartment, sighed ‘le dîner des fromages!‘ as if remembering the crazy idea she’d proposed that we all go together on an excursion to the Himalayas.

The salon fireplace flanked with our books, freshly rescued from Italy

In May, after warning the owners that we would be vacating the apartment before the end of our lease, due to having bought a little farm in Dordogne, we’d all but forgotten about the cheese dinner. It was only then that the invitation materialized. If the menu had already been decided when the idea was first launched, it was only because the meal didn’t require the presence of the maid, who always left at six p.m. Two other sets of tenants had been invited, allowing Madame deftly to kill six birds with one stone. It was well that years back Dan and I had had the mystical experience of a formal French cheese course by stopping for lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chambéry – the only eatery in town that offered the coolness of air conditioning on a stifling summer afternoon. At the end of the meal, the patronne pushed the cheese trolley towards our table and began cutting, slicing, sawing from the various wedges, depending on whether the crust gave way with a tantalizing crunch, or the rind was yielding softly to the blade. She arranged the pieces on the plate and with the sway of her finger indicated to us laymen the sacrosanct order in which they were to be savored.

The upper crust of French cheese makes a fine showing

When we were ushered into our landlady’s candle-lit dining room, cheeses already bedecked the table and the air was saturated with their different aromas. While continuing to drink the champagne uncorked in the living room, we sat down to a Brillat-Savarin, one of the fattiest cheeses in the world, made with the triple cream of Normandy and dusted in a beautiful light and floured coating. Then it was the turn of a deliciously stinky Beaufort cheese, hailing from the Alpine valleys of Haute-Savoie, with its smooth ivory-colored body, followed by a Tomme d’Alsace, pierced by so-called ‘partridge eyes’. Both the Beaufort and Tomme were medium-aged, which Monsieur explained called for a change from champagne to an excellent Riesling. The cheeses rotated around the table in a strictly clockwise direction, and there was no way the sequence could be altered – something as unimaginable as reciting the Gloria before the Kyrie. One pair of tenants who looked as if they’d stepped out of a Jacques Tati movie – she sporting a tall velvet cone hat and he, with a handlebar moustache and hair combed-over his bald spots, in a green double-breasted jacket with a pert bow tie – sat strategically in the middle of the table and directed traffic with efficiency and gravitas. There followed more delicious cheeses – a Mimolette from Lille, as orange on the inside as a Cavaillon melon, and a P’tit Basque of pure Pyrenean goat milk, accompanied by a black cherry compote, both cheeses paired with a Nuits Saint Georges, a fine Burgundy red. The finale of our dîner des fromages came with a Bleu d’Auvergne, a small glass of aged port, and a sumptuous dark chocolate torte that, Madame explained, had been concocted by the departed maid. The dinner guests – cone hats, bow ties and all – dispersed along with wafts of the glorious cheeses of France up the gray limestone staircase interspersed with black marble tiles that I would miss forever shortly thereafter.