The Bleakest Beginnings

I arrived in France on a Sunday, the 30th of April, white and sweaty and hungover as all hell.

After a night that involved every beer in east London, a whole bottle of organic Grüner Veltliner, and a rousing rendition of “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence on Singstar, I’d met Sarah for brunch in Exmouth Market. Sarah’s food looked great, but brunch for me consisted of a single piece of unbuttered toast and a poached egg, of which I ate about half, and even that was a struggle.

On the way to get on my train, I’d hurriedly bought a sandwich from the newsagent in St Pancras, quite a stressful proposition given that I was wielding two enormous bags and my train was in the process of boarding. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered – I choked down the sandwich because I thought I should, not because I had felt anything that even remotely resembled hunger.

After four hours of trains and at least half of the most morally questionable episode of S-Town (the one where they inexplicably go into a large amount of detail about McLemore’s sex life), I arrived at my hotel at around 7:30pm. As a result of my day’s sad nibbling and the hangover, I was ready to eat a live octopus out of Boris Johnson’s armpit. But as I heaved my suitcase into the corner of my exceptionally bleak hotel room, I realised: this is Europe. And it’s a Sunday evening.

Nothing was open. I had to walk for about 20 minutes before I found a landscape that wasn’t just desolate pavement, apartment buildings and parked cars, and then there were metal shutters as far as the eye could see.

After I walked back and forth past a kebab shop about four times twisting with anxiety (what if they speak to me in French etc etc), I decided that surely there was some kind of superette or tiny supermarket or dairy open somewhere. I would find it and acquire food with a minimum of human contact, if it was the last thing I would do.

Victory came in the form of a small stand of vegetables that I’d spotted from a good 100m down the road, which turned out to be a small superette. The shopkeeper threw me off guard initially by greeting me with a cheery “bonsoir!” – I’d been mentally practicing my very best “bonjour” for those 100m and although I knew what he meant, I panicked and stammered “hey” back at him.

I came away with a packet of cornichon- and moutarde-flavoured chips (the shop had no bread), a packet of sliced ham, and a wheel of camembert in that kind of thin, balsa wood packaging that seems to be de rigueur for this kind of cheese. The chips were delicious, and the ham tasted like supermarket ham, which wasn’t an unwelcome flavour.

The camembert was solid to the touch, and was entirely too cold. Having spent the last four years eating “camembert” that was made in New Zealand, I wasn’t going to let the cheese’s temperature put me off. I’d been dreaming of this day since I’d left Europe the first time, and I was going to eat the bloody cheese regardless of whether it was too cold, or I was on fire or something.

The cheese’s rind was thick and flaky, and cutting off a wedge revealed a kind of solidified centre that looked a bit like chèvre, which, while not offputting in any way, didn’t really look right. It didn’t smell particularly strongly in any way (although subsequent openings of the fridge in my small hotel room revealed that the cheese did in fact have a rather forthright aroma). I put the wedge in my mouth.

To my hungover, hungry and camembert-starved brain, this was quite possibly the most delicious cheese I had ever eaten. It was creamy and soft, but pungent at the same time, and it made my tongue itchy – always the sign of a good cheese. It wasn’t an expensive cheese – it was about 2€, and by French standards this was probably a fairly lowly cheese. I think it probably would have cost me about $20 to buy something similar in New Zealand.

It took me a few days to get through the cheese, and the majority of the wheel was eaten with me standing above the open fridge cutting off a surreptitious wedge or two at a time.

I’m sure there will be other camemberts and other hangovers, but this was my first in France and I will treasure the precious memory of this cheese.

Type of Cheese: Camembert
Eaten with: Schweppes Virgin Mojito, chips
Score: 9 out of 10 laughing cows




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