• La Fromagerie

Food

Talk and cheese

The Marylebone Journal spends a day watching the world go by at La Fromagerie

Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili

Every artichoke needs a stage. At La Fromagerie, the busy crew are setting out the fresh produce for today’s performance. Treading the boards is a stellar cast featuring Italian onions, Sicilian datterini tomatoes, garlic from Cadours, Valencian oranges and saturn peaches. The coffee machine tunes up noisily. This promises to be some show.

Downstairs, head chef Alessandro Grano toils away. Marco Gilardi creates a display of cakes in front of a communal table—a place where Marylebone strangers quickly become friends. The display includes fluffy fresh meringues and big-as-you-like brownies. A chap in chef’s whites breezes past. “Odie is a master of cakes,” says Marco, nodding at him. “Customers come in specifically for them.”

A mum and dad have ordered breakfast with their two young sons, the table awash with toast, butter and jam. Across from them, a middle aged couple plan their day in extra-large American accents. Two friends share a pot of tea and a catch up. “So how’s life?” asks one. “Well...” replies her chum, pausing for effect. This may require a second pot.

Bigger, better, truer
Patricia Michelson, the founder of La Fromagerie arrives on the shop floor and stops to chat with one of her regulars. While they converse, Patricia’s kingdom receives the ultimate seal of approval: a French couple are filling a basket at a pace that suggests they’ve heard rumours of impending food shortages: three lemons, leeks, garlic, olive oil, two small baguettes, a bottle of white and some wonderfully whiffy cheese.

Shop manager Bruno d’Abo gives me a quick tour. “Our ethos—it’s all about a journey,” he says. “From the moment you enter the shop you are hit with this vibrancy of colour. And you see produce you don’t necessarily see anywhere else. Or if you do, then ours is a bigger, better, truer version.”

We stop to inspect the basket of enormous globe artichokes from France. “They look like they’re on steroids, don’t they?” jokes the shop manager. “Every single product that you see on the shelf will have been chosen by one of us,” explains Bruno. “We buy direct, we don’t go through a wholesaler, so there’s a face behind each product.”

A surprise encounter
Suddenly, Gwyneth Paltrow strides into La Fromagerie. Yes—that Gwyneth Paltrow. But everyone just carries on as normal. She is joined by her two children and a minder: a man who looks like he could slice these lemons with a single thought, but instead entertains the kids with stories about his mum’s jam-making prowess.

Gwyneth hasn’t actually run out of cheese, but is here to be photographed in the Cheese Room for the cover of her forthcoming cookery book. And in file half a dozen people, only a small entourage by Hollywood standards, including a photographer and their assistant.

After the shoot, Gwyneth and Patricia stand chatting like old friends. A customer brushes past the actress without a sideways glance. She has eyes only for the brie.

The beating heart
Cheesemonger Patrick Roman-Sadler leads me inside the Cheese Room—the “beating heart” of La Fromagerie—and quickly slides the glass door shut. These farmhouse cheeses have been carefully matured to peak condition by a team of affineurs at the La Fromagerie ageing rooms in Highbury. “A lot of the cheeses will be sent to us what we call half-affinage,” explains Patrick. “So they won’t quite be ready for sale. We have to ripen them. And each group of cheeses need to be treated differently.”

Only once perfectly ripened can a cheese appear inside this room. And even then, it must be well looked after. “The cheese room is separate from the rest of the shop. It’s a temperature controlled room, essentially a large fridge. We have humidifiers as well, because otherwise some of the cheeses will dry out faster than we want. The cheeses have to be turned regularly so that the moisture is evenly distributed.”

Patrick cuts a sliver of challerhocker, which has all the deep depth of flavour you’d desire from a cheese that’s been washed in wine, rubbed in spices and then aged in a cellar for at least 10 months.

“We visit the cheesemakers,” says Patrick. “We meet them, their animals and the affineurs. And we learn on the job—how each cheese reacts depending on how you treat it. There are people who’ve worked here for years and know a lot about cheese, so that knowledge filters down. Tasting is key, because then you learn the differences between each individual cheese, rather like wine. Every day is a school day. There’s always something new to discover.”

Soul of the place
Hours later, we’re well into the lunch session in the cafe. A young couple share a large plate of charcuterie and the odd flirtatious glance. Across from them a lady elegantly raises a spoonful of soup to her lips. Her companion is less refined, ruthlessly attacking his ploughman’s of Keen’s cheddar, jambon fume, piccalilli and crisp apple.

At another table sit husband and wife David and Odette Littman, who’ve just enjoyed a light lunch before launching into the weekly shop. “We both had the carrot and ginger soup followed by a salad,” says Odette, in what sounds like a French accent. “I am French,” she says, clearing up the matter instantly.

So how does Odette rate her native produce here at La Fromagerie? “Do you know, we were just saying that we eat better here than we did all the time we lived in France.” But the Littmans aren’t only here for the wonderful food. “The staff are so very nice,” says Odette. “They all know us and the head chef really is so good. And let’s face it, Patricia, she’s the soul of this place.”

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