One of the great perks of working at Formaggio Kitchen is the opportunity to travel around the world in search of delicious foods. Ihsan and Valerie Gurdal, owners of the Formaggio Kitchen family of shops, feel strongly that being on the ground to meet with farmers, affineurs and food producers is the best way to find the most delicious goodies to stock our shelves and fill our cheese cases. That philosophy has yielded and continues to yield marvelously tasty results!
I was lucky enough to be one of the four-member team for our shops that recently went to Paris to attend the Salon du Fromage and the Salon de l’Agriculture. David (cheese buyer for Formaggio Kitchen South End) and Tyler (Cave Manager here in Cambridge) were designated “Team Cheese” – while Adam (Mail Order Manager) and I were on the hunt for new and tasty, non-cheese foodstuffs for the shops. David and Tyler spent most of their time at the Salon du Fromage – a place of relative calm as we would soon discover. The Salon du Fromage is primarily for industry folks – you need a badge to get in and it’s very much about buyers meeting with top level affineurs or agers of cheese. Adam and I joined David for their first meeting of the show and later had the opportunity to stroll the aisles, sample some cheeses, catch up with cheese acquaintances and make new friends in fromage. However, the majority of our time was spent at the Salon de l’Agriculture.
Where the Salon du Fromage was an oasis of calm and folks circulated at a leisurely pace, the Salon de l’Agriculture was alive with sounds and smells – from live animals, to children scampering about, to music coming over the loudspeakers, to temporarily constructed restaurants that filled up come lunch time.
Adam and I tackled Pavilion 7 and were amazed at first to walk into a building where the huge first floor was dominated by animal pens – showcasing a wide range of breeds of sheep, cows and pigs. Demonstrations were in progress – children and their parents clustered around a man talking about chickens and eggs, adults gathered to learn about cattle – everywhere you turned there was action. A little confused at first as to where we were going to find the food pavilions, we eventually navigated to the center of the building and the escalators which brought us to the second and third floors. It kind of felt like being in a farmers’ market department store. We decided to start on the third floor – where foods of the world were being showcased – and work our way down.
We emerged from the escalator column of the building into Italy – we had to chuckle that we had come all the way to Paris and here we were starting off our tasting with tomato caviar, Parmigiano Reggiano and anchovies. Our eyes grew wide at the cooked meats on display – from a huge porchetta, to the largest mortadella we had ever seen!
Much as we enjoyed this portion of the show, Adam and I were anxious to get to the heart of why we were there – to visit the regional French stalls. These we found on the second floor. As we explored, signs made it clear which region of France we were in – from the Loire, to Burgundy. The latter was dominated by wine stands, while the former had many more goat related goodies – from cheeses, to cakes. For practical reasons, we passed over the perishable items – although we saw amazing displays of fish, fruits, vegetables and cakes. We also longingly eyed the piles of cured meats and salamis that were available – again, unfortunately off limits. However, we reveled in samples of candies, herbs, cookies, jams, honeys, syrups and Piment d’Espelette. Needless to say, our break for lunch was short and light.
We tried to cover as much ground as possible. We sampled things we loved, some we didn’t like so much and others we wish we could import but just can’t (a delicious crème de cassis among them). Adam had a pedometer feature on a small clock he had attached to his key chain – in total he clocked us walking about twelve miles per day. As we worked our way around, we chatted with many small producers and collected samples. Most of the stalls we visited were family operations – husband and wife, two brothers, parents and children, and so forth. They spoke with passion, enthusiasm and excitement about their work – from establishing a small milling operation in the Champagne-Ardenne region, to a fruit farm in Burgundy. Attending the show was like taking a fun and tasty crash course on regional French cuisine. Adam and I learned a lot, never mind tasting all sorts of delicious goodies – some that were totally new to us! As we went along, we tried to pick a representative cross-section of the best of our experiences to take back to our colleagues.
Now, back in Cambridge, we are gathering together all the products we toted home. When anyone in the shop goes on a trip and brings back samples to the shop, we open things up and try to get as many folks as possible to taste the samples – the decision on what to bring in is usually a collective one. I am fortunate to work with folks whose opinions I respect and who have a lot of experience tasting – and tasting critically. We are just now sharing the samples we brought back from Paris in order to get feedback. Hopefully you will see the best of the best on our shelves in the coming months! We’ll keep you posted!
Mary is a baker, cheesemonger and the social media manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.