Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
My friend Alice is in love with a Frenchman who runs a Portobello Road cheese stall. ‘I’m very worried,’ she says, ‘that whenever I buy cheese from him in my schoolgirl French I confuse je voudrais with je t’aime.’
Monsieur Fromage, as she calls him, is just the sort of fellow anybody half sensible would want to buy their cheese from. First of all he has a whiff of chèvre about him, says Alice. Secondly he looks as if he lives in a mountain cave with a herd of goats, which is extraordinary and wonderful in a neighbourhood like Notting Hill. ‘He has a pretty wife somewhere, I’m sure,’ she sighs.
In search of this mythical Frenchman, I head to Portobello Road. I find the stall – Une Normande à Londres – sandwiched between an olive oil stand and a fruit and veg stall. Opposite is the Electric Cinema. Seconds away, at Coffee Plant, Ben Fogle and Rachel Johnson, are sipping cappuccinos.
At Monsieur Fromage’s stand, a trendy Notting Hill type in an oversized sheepskin coat and pink Converses is ordering her cheese, next to a sign that says, ‘Please do not touch saucissons.’ Next in the queue, a very sympa American woman is busy with her Christmas list: one Mont d’Or (Vacherin), one large brie, two goat’s cheeses and three mozzarellas (the stall also sells Parmesan but absolutely NO English cheeses, not even le Cheddar which the French are secretly mad about). ‘That’s me!’ says the friendly American, putting away her list and beaming at me. ‘They do such fantastic cheese here and they are so reliable.’
Behind the counter, Alice’s crush, Yann, is hard at work alongside his younger sidekick Gaetan. Having experienced the arctic chill of Barthélémy cheese shop in Paris it’s a relief to find Yann and Gaetan are friendly rosy-cheeked fellows with no airs and graces. ‘I have been here for 15 years,’ says Yann, who hails from a camembert producing family in Normandy. ‘I started in Brique [Brick] Lane and now I sell cheese at Bara [Borough] Market.’
Every week Yann drives over to France in his white Renault van and stocks up on 150 to 250 different cheeses. The cheeses – all from small producers – are made with unpasteurised milk and there’s a particularly strong selection of goat’s cheeses, as well as foie gras (£50 a kilo) and all kinds of (very butch) salamis.
The stand’s bestseller (and Alice’s favourite) is Comté, a delicious cheese from eastern France that’s a bit like Gruyère, but right now it’s the Vacherins that are selling like hotcakes – and that’s what I’m going to be eating on Christmas Day instead of Stilton (I’m told the Vacherin should be taken out of the frigidaire at least 24 hours ahead).
While Gaetan picks out a cheese for me, I watch Yann work his magic on his customers. ‘Yann is a legend here,’ says Gaetan, who comes from Burgundy and is the smiliest French person I’ve ever met. ‘People come here not just for his cheese, but for him.’
Une Normande à Londres, Gaetan tells me, is not a reference to Yann’s wife, sister or mother, but a homage to the meadow-munching vache normande. The creamy milk of this sturdy Norman cow produces three of France’s best-loved cheeses: Camembert, Livarot and Pont l’Evêque.
The Portobello Road stand will be open for business until 3pm on Christmas Eve and if you’re looking for Christmas presents Lutyens & Rubinstein, the tiny independent bookshop on Kensington Park Road, is the place to go. I’ve just bought my god-daughter Eloise in Paris and a hardback edition of Pippi Longstocking with pictures by Lauren Child.
A restaurant tip for 2015
Yann is also the fromage brains behind a small bistro and deli in Covent Garden called Champagne + Fromage. It sells Champagne from small growers alongside 30-odd cheeses, pâtés, cassoulets, jams and soups, all from small, family-run suppliers across the Channel. According to Gaetan it’s a rustic, unpompous sort of place with furniture from vide-greniers (France’s infinitely more lovely answer to the British car boot sale).
Champagne + Fromage is at 22 Wellington Street, London WC2, 020 7240 1604. (There’s a second, newer branch in Brixton – Unit 10-11 Brixton Village, SW8, 020 7095 8504).