Whenever I tell people I generally don't like cheese, I receive one of three reactions: pure, utter horror and dismay, pity, or odd admiration. The admiration is really more about people who love cheese but hate what it does to their intestines; they sound like their self-discipline to avoid cheeses are similar to someone who hasn't touched heroin in three years.
But when I told friends and co-workers that I was headed to France, the first thing I heard from many was that the trip was being wasted on me because I was not a fan of cheese. (Uh, hello? Wine! Come on, people, cheese is not the culinary end-all). As my poor mother knows, I’ve been averse to a majority of cheeses since childhood. Now, as a grown lady, I attempt to stomach samples at friends' parties and at Trader Joes when forced by my cheese-loving spouse. But I did resolve that while was in France, I would cautiously attempt to do as the French do: indulge in the local fromage.
I feel like I cheated a bit with my first indulgence, which was at Benoit, Alain Ducasse's Parisian institution known for its exquisite traditional cuisine. The place is exactly what you think of, when you picture a Parisian restaurant: white tablecloths, brass accents everywhere, and waiters in tuxedos. My first cheesy item in all of France was a gougeres, a delicious puff pastry with mild, melted gruyère in the middle, which Ducasse has become known for. Apparently, it’s his take on a beloved local appetizer, that most people who entertain guests around here know how to whip up quickly. Fortunately, I didn't die after eating it. Maybe because I was so damn excited that I was in Paris, I ate two of them.
The next day, we set out for the French Alps by train. We arrived at Paris's Gare du Lyon station, to the right was a grand staircase up to Train de Bleu, a traditional French restaurant that has served the fanciest of commuters since 1901. Stepping into this restaurant was like stepping into another time, when women needed hat boxes and railroad travel required steam or coal.
After a très traditionnel lunch of gelée de crevettes grises, paleron de bœuf braisé façon bourgeoise, and baba au rhum (basically a bucket of rum with some sponge cake in it) someone offered me a sampling from their desert — a cheese plate. For the record, I am baffled that people eat cheese as dessert, but hey, it takes all kinds. I was most fearful of the softer cheeses on the plate, which I am sure came from some goat, and there was no way I was going to go for any bleu cheese. But I did try a camembert and that was not too bad. I did have to chew it quickly, and finish it with the robust red wine I was drinking, but I ate it, and did not make a sour face whilst doing so.