Day 4: Hands-On and an Artisanal Dinner
The morning of day 4 focused on retail as we reviewed the theory and practice of selecting cheeses for a fromagerie and setting a cheese case. Here again I was able to draw on my experience analyzing consumer behavior and retail sales.
Creating a successful retail business is hard. So many factors influence sales and thus must be understood. An owner must study consumer preferences, track competitive threats, create artful presentations, carefully manage stock, and effectively train staff—and those are only the big things. As part of our discussion, we spent over an hour looking at photos of different cheese stores Sue had visited studying the various setups and what we liked and didn’t like.
Thursday’s tasting focused on blue and pressed cooked cheeses, each of which is an AOP cheese and thus is subject to strict guidelines. Among the blues we had Bleu des Causses, Roquefort, Fourme d’Ambert. While blues can often seem quite similar (strong and warming in the mouth), this tasting helped us recognize some varying flavors. The hard cheeses were France’s classics: Comté, the nation’s best-selling cheese by miles, and the alpine delights Beaufort and Abondance, each recognized by a concave rind.
Thursday’s tasting also included a new methodology of rating the cheese. Mons has developed a proprietary approach that involves using ratings scales to assess various components of smell, taste, and appearance. Mons administers the tasting to groups of people and then articulates the cheese’s flavor profile based on the perspectives held in common. The profiles are then shared with both retail and wholesale sales people to ensure that frontline staff are fully knowledgeable on the products.
That afternoon we visited the other two local Mons’ stores. We first went to Charlieu, a small medieval village where Mons operates a small boutique on the main market street. The store was closed, which gave us the opportunity practice wrapping cheese. We watched Laurent and Sue demonstrate on various forms and then set to it ourselves. We all got rather good at it as our initial tentative attempts gave way to more confident handling. After 20 minutes, nearly every cheese in the store that could be wrapped was tidily covered in food-grade Mons-branded wrapping paper, including odd shapes like the pyramid of Pouligny, triangular Comtés, and circular Saint-Marcellins.
We then went to Renaison, a nice market location that reminded me a bit of my market in Levallois. As this was the third Mons location we visited, we were able to appreciate the similarity in branding and clean lines in the store. Everything about their setups communicates communicated quality, and that’s not by accident. Laurent is a keen observer of detail and is constantly listening to staff and looking for ways to optimize retail layout for merchandising, staff efficiency, and customer appeal.
Thursday night was Sue’s night to go to the Chateau de Champlong as she and Laurent celebrated the Chef’s wife’s birthday. Meanwhile, the guys and I had a great meal at the hotel.
Having gotten to know our hosts and having shared our cheese over the previous days, our Chef treated us to some of his family’s home-made charcuterie. The three-year cured ham was very good. The herbed andouille sausage cured in walnut oil was nothing short of fantastic. Aging had created a mellow yet concentrated porky flavor with a vague hint of thyme. Our main dish was brandade de morue, a traditional French meal of salt cod that has been washed and broken into small chunks then mixed with a puree. It was delicious and, without question, the best I had ever eaten. Flavors were well-balanced flavors, the fish wasn’t too salty, and the texture was unctuous in the mouth.
With the intensity of the week now really catching up to us, we all managed to go to bed at a sensible hour. Again, Kym and I made plans to go for a run. This time I was a bit too ambitious though, but that’s a story for the next post.