We’ve all indulged in the fantasy. You imagine yourself walking along the Seine with a picnic basket loaded with cheese and wine. A freshly baked baguette peeps out the top. You hold hands with an attractive French person. One or both of you sports a jaunty beret. Ah, Paris.
Of course, the reality of visiting Paris is slightly more complicated than the reverie. You never imagine the need to find a bathroom mid-walk, a snippy text from your boss, looking terrible in a beret, or trying to find good cheese or wine along the route.
Fortunately, that last part is easier than you think. According to David Lebovitz, food blogger and author of the newly released book Drinking French (Penguin Random House, 2020), there is a “wide spectrum of cheeses available” in Paris. Moreover, “all of France is represented in wine shops,” whereas you mostly only find regional bottles in other French cities, he says.
Here, we collect advice from Parisian wine and cheese professionals to make your next trip to Paris as nice as your last daydream.
“I always look for an affineur when buying cheese,” says writer Catherine Down. An affineur, or someone who ripens and ages cheeses, is “likely to have more specialized knowledge, direct relationships with producers and a wider selection as a result,” she says.
Affineurs are easier to find in Paris than in most U.S. cities, says Down. Simply look for the word “affineur” on the sign or awning. Some of Down’s favorite affineurs are at Laurent Dubois, Androuet and Jouannault.
Similarly, the best way to find quality French wines different from those you’d pick up at home is to visit shops with smaller selections. The large chains, like Nicolas, “typically only work with very large wineries that can supply a huge national chain,” says Francesca Hansen, U.S. sales manager at Paris Wine Co.
At independent wine shops like Caves Legrand, La Dernière Goutte or La Cave de Belleville, the sales professionals “are passionate about wine and would be happy to talk about their favorites,” says Hansen. If you see vigneron indépendent on a bottle, you’ve found a wine made by a small, independent winemaker. For organic producers, look for vin biologique. For wines with no added sulfur, look for sans soufre.
Know When to Go
Most Parisian cheese shops are closed on Mondays and during lunch hours, so check hours online before visiting. “Google is your friend,” says Ashley Noëlle Morton, owner of Brieyoncé cheese consulting. Down calls Mondays in Paris “a cheese desert.”
If you need to buy cheese on a Monday, Down says that the 7th arrondissement location of Androuet is open from 4–7:30 pm. Otherwise, “your best bets are department stores with food halls, or a place like Maison Plisson that’s a bit of one-stop pricey gourmet food shopping,” she says.
Wine shop hours vary, but they tend to have wider and more consistent hours than cheese shops. It’s still worth a quick check before you head over, though.
Find New Favorites
Laws in the U.S. prohibit the sale of young raw milk cheeses, but France has no such restriction. If you love Brie and Camembert in the U.S., Lebovitz recommends Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun (“its most pungent cousin,”) and Camembert du Normandie in France.
Morton says that cheeses like Brie and Camembert “taste 10 times better in their raw milk forms than the pasteurized versions available in the States.” She also recommends sheep and goat’s milk cheeses made in the same style, like Bouyguette, an oval-shaped goat cheese topped with a sprig of rosemary. Her other favorites include Le Roumé, Galoche au Thym and Briquette de l’Écaillon.
Familiar cheeses like Brie might look different in Paris, too. “It isn’t unusual to see cheeses spotted with blue mold, coated in an array of herbs or spices, or a bit on the fuzzy side,” says Morton. “Don’t let this intimidate you.”
A bonus of shopping for French wine in Paris? A selection that ranges from grand cru Burgundy to tiny natural wine producers. Plus, there’s no import tariffs and lower alcohol taxes, says Charlotte King, co-founder of tour company Bacchus & Clio.
King recommends to seek out “more satellite appellations from the Rhône Valley, like Ventoux or Lirac.” She says that the small regions can offer more value for budget-conscious shoppers.
Start a Conversation
Are you looking for a mild, buttery Brie? A powerful red wine? Not sure? Speak up.
“Cheesemongers expect you to eat cheese on the day that you are purchasing,” says Down, “So always let them know if you are intending to serve them at a later date, as they may give you other ones at a different stage of ripeness.”
And if budgets and schedules only permit a very small piece of cheese to snack on alone as you overlook the Seine, that’s O.K., too. You should feel empowered to ask politely for what you want.
The same thing goes for wine, too.
“Normally, in France, talking about money is taboo,” says King. “Not the case with wine.”
Both she and Lebovitz suggest you give a price range to the wine shop clerk. “It’s normal in France, and they won’t think you’re ‘cheap’ if you have a modest budget,” he says.
Share as many details as you’re comfortable with about wines you love, like regions, characteristics and producers that you enjoy.
“This will also let the shop owner know that you are actually interested and curious, and it makes them want to help you even more,” she says.
Mind Your Manners
Whether you shop for cheese, wine, shoes, dog toys or anything else, locals suggest you greet employees with a cheerful “Bonjour.”
“It will be greatly appreciated and will set the tone for a good shopping experience,” says Morton.
Good manners and polite, engaged conversation may pay off in ways you don’t expect. Sometimes, says King, you have to show business owners that you “deserve bottles,” as “sometimes they keep their best bottles in back, and not on display.”
“If you show that you are ‘deserving,’ they’ll whip them out for you,” she says. “It’s a real privilege when this happens.”
French Wine Terms to Know
Fraîcheur: High acidity, freshness
Gras: creamy texture
Pas de bois: unoaked
Élevage: maturation (ex. oak barrel, stainless steel, oak casks, cement eggs, etc.)
French Cheese Terms to Know
Lait cru: raw milk
Thermisé: thermalized (a gentler form of pasteurization used in Europe)
Pâte molle: soft cheese
Pâte dure: hard cheese
Une tranche: a slice