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Say Cheese: Meet Sebastien Tavel

Sebastien Tavel of La Fromagerie. (Domenica Marchetti)

Meet the Cheesemonger: This is the first in a series of Q&A’s with the folks behind the counter at area cheese shops and cheese departments of supermarkets and grocery stores.

First up: Sebastien Tavel, owner of La Fromagerie, in Old Town Alexandria.

Q. You were born outside of Lyon, France. How is it that you came to open a cheese shop in Alexandria, Virginia?

A. I worked as a professional chef for about 15 years in Paris, London, North Carolina (where I met my wife, Mary) and finally Washington, D.C. Mary and I are passionate about food and wanted to work together. Owning a restaurant was a big project to tackle financially, so we decided to open a little cheese shop instead. Cheese is so diverse, it is fun to work with and delicious to eat.

Q. How many cheeses does La Fromagerie carry?

A. About 75 or 80 cheeses at all times.

Q. France has many world-renowned cheeses. Yet, your selection leans toward farmstead and artisan cheeses made in the U.S. Why?

A. People often come to La Fromagerie and tell me how they enjoyed such and such cheese while staying in France. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to find the exact same product in the U.S. Any good cheese shop in France will age its own cheese. Being a cheese monger (affineur in French) is considered a high-skilled trade and is well respected. Cheeses made to feed the worldwide market that we are part of are mass-produced and a far cry from the ones you can find in a traditional French fromagerie. On the other hand, there are some very good artisan cheeses made in the U.S. Farmers and cheesemongers all other the country, including mid-Atlantic region, are passionate about their animals, the quality of their milk and ultimately their cheeses. That's what cheese is all about, high-quality milk and craftsmanship. We want to support that.

Q. What are some of your best-selling cheeses? Do your customers tend to be adventurous or safe in their cheese choices? Are your best-selling cheeses also your personal favorites?

A. Triple creams (Brillat Savarin or Saint-Andre) are always popular. Nancy's Camembert from Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in New York is one of the local customers’ favorites. Manchego (from Spain), and Humboldt Fog (from Cypress Grove Chevre, in California) are names that most people recognize. Customers are usually curious about the local cheeses and are willing to give them a try.

I would say that most customers, if not adventurous, are at least open to suggestions. I am happy to offer samples and talk about the cheeses, so that they can discover new products. There is more to cheese than just texture and color.

The majority of people seem to enjoy flavored cheeses (flavored chevre, for example). We have a locally made Chipotle Jack that is very popular and we just started carrying a pesto Gouda from Holland's Family Farm in Wisconsin. That's flying off the shelf too.

I am not a big fan of flavored anything myself, I just like my cheese plain with a piece of French bread. That's what I got used to growing up. It's hard to change old habits!

Q. Can you name four or five of your all-time favorite cheeses? Can you also name a few new favorites?

A. Old favorites (the ones I grew up on from the Lyons area): Saint-Marcellin and Saint-Felicien; Reblochon; Cantal and Saint-Nectaire (from Auvergne where we used to spend the summer); and Roquefort, Bleu d'Auvergne, Fourme d'Ambert (all blue cheeses).

New favorites: Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy, Virginia; Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from Vermont; Pipe Dreams Goat wafers from Pennsylvania; Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Co., Wisconsin; and Cave Aged Marissa from Carr Valley, Wisconsin.

I love them all, really.

Q. You also sell wine in your shop. Do you tend to choose wines based on how well they might pair with the cheeses in the shop? Can you offer some tips on how to pair cheese and wine?

A. We carry about 50 wines from around the world. We have wine to pair with every one of our cheeses, as well as people's favorites, including chardonnay, pinot grigio, cabernet and Malbec. As far as pairing goes, the basics are to pair cheese and wine by strength. Mild and delicate cheeses are best enjoyed with sparkling wines or light white wines, and full-bodied reds call for an aged cheddar or a washed-rind "stinky" cheese.

Q. What is your favorite recipe to make with cheese?

A. Growing up in France, I used to go to summer camps as a teenager. One of our favorite thing to do around the campfire was to stick a wheel of Camembert, complete with the wooden box, into the ash, let the cheese melt, and then enjoy it warm and runny with a piece of bread. I guess it's the French version of s'mores!

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  June 8, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, cheese  
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Next: Notes from the underground market


Interesting Q&A. I hope that you will focus on some of the other fine cheese shops in Alexandria, such as Rick's Wine & Gourmet and Fern Street Gourmet, in the near future.

Posted by: jonspar10 | June 9, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

This shop is fantastic and was welcomed addition to Old Town last year. The Tavel's provide a great product at a fair price. It is always fun to stop in try something new!

I recommend the roaring 40's blue...

Posted by: Mwayne | June 10, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

What a stroke of good fortune that the Tavel's landed in Old Town. We serve their cheese at our B&B and the guests rave. It's always a delight to drop into their shop and explore the regional and imported cheeses, charcuterie, wine, exotic chocolates and other treats.

Posted by: hfed | June 11, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

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