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Beyond the Periphérique: Cheese Scammers in Provence

cheese-scammers-france

There was something about that cheese stand that stank — even more than the products. © Thomas Perkins Dreamstime.com

I must begin with a confession: for many years I have been an occasional, and sometimes not so occasional, user of a strong substance. It never mattered how much it cost — ...

cheese-scammers-france

There was something about that cheese stand that stank — even more than the products. © Thomas Perkins Dreamstime.com

I must begin with a confession: for many years I have been an occasional, and sometimes not so occasional, user of a strong substance. It never mattered how much it cost — I had to have it. Today I am making progress toward recovery, and now I want to share my experience in the hopes of saving even just one person from descending into the same vicious spiral of need, craving and the senseless squandering of hard-earned money.

I am referring, of course, to French cheese. I love French cheese. The runnier and smellier the better. Cheese is, seriously, one of the top five reasons I live here. (The other four are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that they are not the tax rates, the driving habits, the striking habits and my upstairs neighbor’s taste in music.)

When I was in my mid-twenties and lived in New England, I was once invited to a dinner party hosted by a Francophile who had stocked up on imported French goodies earlier that day at a specialty shop in Manhattan. The cheese course marked the first time I had ever experienced a good red Burgundy, a fresh baguette and a Pont l’Evêque, and it made a deep impression on me. Once I had those three things, each one a major achievement in the history of human nutrition, on my tongue, I said to myself, “The French know something I don’t.” (I would have said it out loud, but my mouth remained uninterruptedly busy for some time.) Those seven or so minutes marked a turning point in my life: later that year I came to France for the first time as a tourist, and two years later I moved here for good. That’s how much I loved that cheese.

So naturally, every time I go on vacation in the provinces I check out the cheese stands in the markets. On a recent trip to Provence, however, I learned that not all cheese stands are stand-up. It seems like an unlikely line of business to be infested with con men, but it’s true. Here’s what happened:

My wife Nancy and I had rented a house in the village of Saignon, about 50 kilometers east of Avignon. On our first Sunday there we went to the weekly market in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, which happens to be my nominee for the world’s greatest itinerant outdoor market. (For those who are dying, or least swooning, to know, my nominee for the world’s greatest stationary indoor market is La Boqueria in Barcelona.)

While ambling around the sprawling maze of stands selling just about everything that can be carried away in a basket, I happened to pass a young couple who were selling Cantal, a relatively hard, relatively mild (for France) cheese that is not one of my big favorites but that I like pretty much. So when the guy cheerily offered me a little cube to try I thought I’d give it a shot. It was quite good. The seller then launched into a line of patter that was obviously honed by experience, if not actually rehearsed, telling me about where the cheese comes from (the Auvergne region), how happy the cows are (ecstatic) and how they (the cheeses) come in three different ages (try the six-month!) with different degrees of pungency. When I asked about the price he affably informed me that all of his Cantals were priced the same, so I could buy a nice big block of each kind and just weigh them all up together, as though shaving a few seconds off the purchase process was the selling point that clinches every deal. But he never mentioned any actual figures. This should have been a red flag on a red flagpole being saluted by the Cincinnati Reds, but it went right over my cheese-addled head.

Meanwhile, Nancy, who is not only less fond of fermented milk products but also more generally sensible than I am, had caught up with me. Monsieur Cantal offered her a piece, which she declined. I was about ready to pony up for a horse-choking chunk of the three-month, but Nancy said, “This doesn’t look right. Let’s go.” Then it occurred to me to check the price. All merchants in France are obliged to post their charging rates, but it took some scrutiny at this particular stand to figure out that the little four-inch-square pieces of paper taped to the table at thigh level were in fact the price tags. Written in blue ink on slightly lighter blue paper, making them very hard to read, they said: €3.50 per 100 grams. Which, obviously, comes to €35 a kilo. Which, flagrantly, comes to nearly four times as much as Cantal usually costs (€9.57 per kilo at my local supermarket).

The guy was a cheese scammer, a fact that was borne home when I said, hoping to bring the interaction to a polite close, “Maybe I’ll come back later,” and he, apparently hoping to bring the interaction to a fistfight, burst into an outraged rant, his formerly chummy expression now twisted into a mask of hostile indignation. As we walked away he kept calling me a liar, yelling over and over, “It’s not good to lie on Sunday! Hey! It’s not good to lie on Sunday!” Now that’s a man who knows the value of positive public relations for building up a solid customer base. And who thinks it’s good to rip people off on Sunday.

It turns out there are cheese chisellers everywhere. Back home in Paris I did some research and found out that many markets throughout France have unscrupulous vendors vending vastly overpriced cheese. The advantage for the unprincipled is that the inventory doesn’t spoil, isn’t wildly expensive to buy in bulk, offers an exorbitant profit margin (as would any product from emeralds to enema bags if you quadruple the price) and requires no overhead other than the permit to sell in the market, the car to get you there and the folding table to hold your bait. I mean stock.

So, as a C’est Ironique public service, I will now reveal how to distinguish a fromage fraudster from an honest cheese monger:

First, watch out for what I call the swindler’s list (of products): cheats only have a few kinds, or maybe just one kind, of cheese, usually in huge wheels, whereas legitimate merchants have an array of products from all over the country. Secondly, charlatans don’t post their prices clearly, whereas trustworthy dealers put a big legible sign out for each cheese showing its price per kilo — not per 100 grams or per carat or whatever, to make it sound cheaper. Thirdly, lacto-racketeers try to rope you in and guilt you into buying by glad-handingly handing out free samples, whereas upstanding vendors might let you taste a little of a certain cheese if you ask. And lastly, dairy knaves don’t tend to attract locals. Check out who else is buying at the stand, and if it’s me (or another clueless tourist) get out of there.

Later Nancy and I talked to a bona fide cheese seller at L’Isle sur la Sorgue, who told us that he knew about the Cantal Cartel and had complained to the city hall, but since the grifters have a permit and post their prices (sort of), there’s nothing anyone can do. If they want to prey upon the uninformed, the unsuspecting and the unworldly, it’s their privilege. Like three-card monte dealers, curd sharks have been around for a long time and will probably still be hawking their extortionate wares long after I have swallowed my last free sample of Cantal. Which come to think of it just happened a couple of weeks ago.

David Jaggard

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