Jason Goodwin: ‘It was like the scene where Dreyfus has his epaulettes ripped off ’

Jason Goodwin asked for organic cheese – and almost sparked an international incident.

We were staying en famille in Paris a few years ago when we stopped at an elegant fromagerie on the rue du Bac to buy some cheese. The shop’s clientele were the well-heeled denizens of St Germain, BCBG, as the snobs would say: Bon Chic, Bon Genre. On every hand, cheeses were displayed in appropriate states of firmness and deliquescence, from squishy Pont l’Évêques to snug Tommes from the Languedoc.

Having handed off his last customer with a dinky paper carrier bag containing, perhaps, a fresh Alpine chèvre, the fromager finally turned to us and, in tones of episcopal gravity, enquired what it was that we desired. We had recently arrived from the Ariège, a Pyrenean region full of English hippies and Dutch back-to-the-landers. So I asked for the first thing that came into my head. ‘Est-ce que vous avez du fromage bio?’

In my youth, also in France, I once endured a moment of horrible embarrassment when I was noisily ordered out of a municipal swimming pool for wearing a pair of PE shorts instead of the regulation Speedos. ‘Ils sont tout transparent!’ the guard bellowed for everyone’s benefit, as I hauled myself out of the pool.

You might think there are worse solecisms than asking for organic cheese in a French cheese shop, like demanding pre-sliced hamburger cheese, say, or a wedge of Double Gloucester, but the effect of my innocent request was similar to my wearing transparent trunks.

Bateman would have grasped the situation immediately. The shop assistant’s supercilious smile froze. He had no words. His colleague turned green. From a far-away street came the distinctive pneumatic wheeze of a Citroën DS subsiding on its suspension.

The silence was broken by the woman standing behind us in the queue. ‘You come in here and ask for your organic cheese!’ She spoke in French, rapid-fire, so I’ll paraphrase. ‘This is what’s wrong with you English. Organic! Of course – with you it has to be so. Pouf! Here in France we have cheese, wine, good food. The sun shines, the rains fall and with that we bring good things out of the soil. Not some denatured product of the industrial process, hein?’

Everyone stared: it was like the scene in J’Accuse! where Dreyfus has his epaulettes ripped off by
a pitiless commanding officer. We shuffled our feet. We blocked the children’s ears.

‘Indeed, you should be ashamed of yourselves,’ she continued. ‘Look around you! What do you see? Not those sorry little fugitives from the process, which need tarting up with a label of authenticity, some government certificate! Organic? Who gives a damn about your organic?’

I smiled weakly.

‘In France you can have a backyard chicken,’ the ghastly woman pressed on, ‘scratching up God knows what for months, which will have used its legs and eyes, enjoyed a life and tastes sublime! Insects – yes, it will eat those. Imagine! But you English will be satisfied with some so-called organic chicken that has lived six weeks in a factory, with a million others! As with the chicken, so with the cheese. These, monsieur,’ she added, with a grand sweep of her arm, drawing herself up to her full 5ft 3in, ‘are the great cheeses of France. Ceux-ci sont les grands fromages de France!’

I can’t exactly remember how this appalling scene ended. I’ve blanked it out. Probably everyone clapped. They may have even sung La Marseillaise, like that scene in Casablanca. I suspect we merely splashed out on a wedge of cheese and fled. Quite apart from being rather rude, the Marianne of St Germain got it wrong. From hatching to dispatching, some of those birds only live five weeks.