A former basketball player who fell in love with cheese has set up what he says is now the only cheese maturing cellar on the Riviera, which enables him to sell his cheeses in the best condition and maturity.
Thomas Métin, 39, picked his cheese shop premises in narrow, bustling Rue du Marché in Vence’s old town, partly because it had a lower floor ideally- suited to installing a cave d’affinage.
It took some time to set up his cellar, to the right hygienic norms and temperature and humidity, he said. “Finding the best way to mature a cheese, from young to old, is a science. I’m still learning a lot, even now.
“For example you don’t mature a cows’ milk cheese in the same way as a goats’ milk one, and you don’t treat a cooked, pressed cheese like Comté or Gruyère like you treat a goats’ cheese or Camembert.”
The right humidity is essential to keep the cheese moist and to develop the mould in the blue varieties, he said; for example at least 90% humidity for harder cows’ milk cheeses and 80% for the soft goats’ cheese.
He keeps his cheeses between 8-10C, comparable to a fridge’s vegetable drawer – which is why you should keep cheeses there, not at the top where it is colder (“if it’s too cold it stops the fermentation; too warm and it develops too fast”).
The shop’s location especially appealed to him, he said. “I saw its potential. It’s a market street with many food stalls. In the morning it’s packed with people. There’s a vegetable store opposite and a busy butcher next door, there’s a fishmonger – plus there was the cellar beneath.”
Mr Métin said there had been a famous cheese shop with a maturing cellar in nearby Cannes, but the owner had died and his heir had sold off the cellar. He said his is now the last in the Alpes-Maritimes and in demand both from ordinary cheese lovers – who he enjoys taking time with, finding just the right cheese for them – and from restaurants.
However he does not want to expand too fast and would rather stay ‘niche’.
His business Fromagerie Métin (fromageriemetin.fr) moved into the shop in summer 2016, but the maturing cave was completed only recently.
“I specialise in products from my region,” Mr Métin said. “I’m from Cagnes-sur-Mer [near Nice] and I have a cheese from the Plateau de Caussols above Grasse, one from Tende and one from Saint-Jeannet, one from Manosque in Provence, and ones from Annot and Dignes in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. It’s all part of our Midi [south of France].
“I spoke to the chefs of, for example the [luxury hotels] Chèvre d’Or in Eze, or Martinez in Cannes and Marcel Ravin from the Monte Carlo Bay and all the time they said ‘we want products from here’. Today we need to reduce our carbon footprint. So I decided to go that way.”
Mr Métin also has cheese from Corsica. “A lot of chefs want that, but the good stuff. There’s a lot of bad produce from Corsica as there’s not enough milk there so they import milk from Sardinia and stamp it made in Corsica.”
He showed Connexion a Corsican speciality thick with hairy white and green mould (see main photo at the top). “It looks disgusting but it’s brilliant, and I need it in the selections I offer to the chefs. We need some colour on the platter! It doesn’t look like anything else!”
He also pointed out a distinctive, parcel-shaped cheese – Gaperon. “It’s from Auvergne and is made with garlic and black pepper.
“It’s strong but wonderful; that’s why people come here – to find something special. I can’t be competitive if I just do the same as everyone else.”
On the day we visited he had also had a delivery of fresh, juicy mozzarella from Italy: “Very rare to find – the real thing, pure buffalo mozzarella,” he said.
Getting to know each producer is important, Mr Métin said. “I’ve been doing it 15 years now, so it’s been a long process. Sourcing is all part of the richness of the fromager’s job. They’ve got to trust in you. It’s a real passion for me. I love it.”
His route towards cheese mastery was atypical. He earned money playing high-level basketball between age 10 to 26, with other jobs on the side, including working in sport for the council. A painful knee injury made him reconsider.
“When you’re a sport player and you’re not bad, you’ve got clubs calling and giving you jobs, offering apartments… They make your life easy but it stops and then who are you? You need to find yourself. I decided to quit everything and go to New Zealand on a one-way trip.”
He found work in a French cheese shop in Auckland, he said. “The owner was from Tours and he had cheese on the ground floor and wine above. That was the beginning – I discovered French cheese at the opposite end of the world.
“Then we opened second and third shops in other neighbourhoods. Everyone liked French cheese – it was exotic for them.
“The Kiwis were fascinated by French culture in general and when I realised that, I felt that I had found my way. I wasn’t only talking about the product but about my culture and the terroir, and deep inside it was what I always wanted to do.”
After meeting a French girl who wanted to go back to Europe, Mr Métin worked at Harrods cheese department in London. “In the interview I had to role-play how to sell Brie. I just did what I’d been doing in Auckland every day, and they said: ‘you really know cheese’.
“In Auckland it was more friendly and casual, but it was a great experience at Harrods because maybe I’d been too laid-back. It was strict and disciplined and the client was king. There were 300 cheeses and I had to talk in my most proper English, instead of a mix of Kiwi and French.”
He added: “I also learned about English cheeses – it was incredible, they had a massive variety with so many flavours. I was very surprised.
“It’s a really cheesy country, though there are fewer techniques – a lot of English cheeses are the pressed, cooked kind like cheddar, and there are a lot of blues.”
Montgomery’s Cheddar, from Somerset, is one of his favourite cheeses, along with Lincolnshire Poacher and Stinking Bishop.
He then moved back to France where he worked in small cheese shops in Paris before being responsible for cheese sections in Galeries Lafayette – one of the largest cheese shops in France – and then in their branch in Nice.
Now he is enjoying the challenge of creating his own business in his native south, he said. “Since the beginning it was my dream. I could have done it in Paris, but what was the point staying in a city I didn’t love? There’s a real ambience here and my quality of life is as important as the business side.
“More and more people want good food and want to know what they have in their plate and be closer to the artisan. Artisanship is important in France but it had started to be lost.
“Now they ask where has it come from? How was it made? I can feel a change in society.”
Mr Métin said the Alpes-Maritimes is known for goats’ cheese because the animals do not need a lot of green pasture. It is a dry area, and the goats also help keep down vegetation in the summer, avoiding fires.
They especially love aromatic plants, he said, and that gives extra floral notes to the cheese. “We use alpines chamoisées, goats that climb into trees to eat the leaves.”
In PACA there is a stress on milk quality and seasonality, he added.
“If we respect the season, there’s no goats’ cheese between October and March, but today lighting and breeding techniques may be used to have milk later.
“But the best milk is the first milking in the spring; fresh goats’ cheese is beautiful then.
“Then there is also what we call regain – regrowth in September and October after the grass is cut for silage in August. It’s rich in nutrients so we have very good quality cheese at the start of the season and then at the end. I buy as much as possible made with this regain milk, rather than winter milk.”
Mr Métin advised that readers should choose several types of milk for a cheese platter, with sheep’s, goats’ and cows’ and different shapes and colours – and always an odd number which makes for a more interesting, less regular display. Ask the cheesemonger where the cheese is from and which kinds are at their best.