Fromage & French only opened last year but it’s proved enormously popular with locals who love the finer things in life. As well as launching an online shop recently, it’s now open weekend evenings so customers can sit and sip samples from their new state of the art wine dispensing machines. Eileen Leahy caught up with owner Gaëlle Coyle to find out all about her grape expectations . . .
Since opening its ‘petit et bijou’ shop on Tunbridge Wells High Street in 2016 Fromage & French has been the go-to gastronomic destination for passionate Francophile foodies.
As its name would suggest cheese is the big draw here but Fromage & French’s smart wooden floor to ceiling shelves are also filled with all manner of other Gallic delights including exotic salad dressings, delicious condiments, luxury sweet treats and also a smattering of niche French beauty products. There’s also now a small dining area at the back of the shop where freshly made sandwiches can be enjoyed during the day against a backdrop of French recipe books, gadgets and cheese boards all for sale.
In short, walking into Fromage & French is a decadent delight, not just for the senses, but for those who want a slice of la vie Française without having to cross the Channel. And now its owner Gaëlle Coyle has added another interesting dimension to her beloved boutique by offering a variety of French wines which can be sampled ‘sur place’ courtesy of the two state of the art wine dispensers she has invested in.
So what gave her the idea to launch a ‘sit and sip’ service in her store? “Our wine supplier is a guy called Chris who runs his own wholesale importing business called Department 33, named after the French region of Bordeaux,” Gaëlle explains.
“In February this year he asked if I’d like to accompany him to a wine festival in Montpellier. I agreed and one evening we went to a bar where they had these wine machines. I’d never seen them before but thought they were amazing. We returned there the following evening and Chris said ‘what if we go into business together? Cheese and wine, it’s a perfect pairing’. It obviously made total sense, especially as there is nothing else like this that exists in Tunbridge Wells.”
After being granted a licence and permission to extend Fromage & French’s opening hours the shop’s shiny new Wine Emotion machines – ¬which are Italian designed and made – were sourced and installed. Chris then got to work on selecting a range of wines which customers could enjoy sampling, ensuring a good selection of price points and grape varieties.
“Chris is very discerning and really knows his wines importing mainly from small French family vineyards around Bordeaux,” adds Gaëlle. “But he’s also now expanded into the Languedoc Roussillon region and the Rhone and Burgundy.”
Looking into the gleaming machines, where I spy a Mâcon Péronne de Bourgogne and a Cuvée Le Castel from Domaine d’Alary, Cahors, these dispensers mean serious business. The spec is high tech with digital temperature settings and a clever oxidising system in place.
Gaëlle, who was born in France’s Auvergne region but has lived in the UK for 30 years, reveals how it all works: “We have one machine with eight reds in it and they’re kept at roughly 17 degrees. The other machine is refrigerated and has six white wines and two rosés kept at about five to six degrees. There’s an oxygen generator downstairs so when people help themselves to a glass, the dispensed wine is replaced by nitrogen so it stops the remaining wine from oxidising. The manufacturer says wines can be stored up to four weeks in the machines without affecting the taste but we only keep ours for around two to three due to demand.”
There are a number of ways customers can use the machines: “You can pay 75p for a sample which will give you a couple of mouthfuls or you can buy wines by the glass. Prices for this vary from £6 for an entry level Chardonnay up to £12 for a large glass of Margaux although if you’re going to have a couple of glasses it’s probably more cost effective to buy a bottle.”
In total Gaëlle has around 75 to 80 wines on offer but to my surprise they’re not all French. “We have the odd New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and some Portuguese and Spanish wines too – we call them the imposters,” she laughs.
Gaëlle has also introduced a card system which can be pre-loaded with money or left blank and the total added up at the end of your sampling session.
“We’re very flexible with how people want to use their cards. If you have £30 on it you know that’s the value you can drink up to or just use a bit from. But if you want to sample a few wines then we can also work out what you’ve had by checking the card for you.” She says you can also put certain amounts on a card and offer it as a gift to someone.
With their extended licensing hours on a Friday and Saturday Fromage & French have also started cheese and wine tasting evenings, at £20 a head with Chris hosting, as well as private parties. The snug space can take just under 20 people and again there is flexibility on whether you just want to drink wine or ask Gaëlle and her team to negotiate on menus which include just nibbles or cheese platters or a selection of fondues.
Since opening last year Fromage & French has built up a loyal customer base with plenty of people dropping by for their daily bread – baked at the Bicycle Bakery on the Camden Road – as well as other French stapes including Maille mustards, Daucy petit pois, Bonne Maman compotes, chunky Marseilles soaps and of course their excellent variety of cheese.
Every Tuesday Fromage & French do a selection of four different cheeses for a very appetising £7. “One woman comes in pretty much every week,” says Gaëlle. “She just loves cheese and if she doesn’t come in I worry!”
Her impressive selection includes classics such as Brie de Meaux and Racelette as well as lesser known offerings like Saint Marcellin and Livarot.
“Brie and Comté are by far the most popular,” she states. “A lot of our customers are passionate about cheese and know that what you find in the supermarket is not the real thing. Ours are made by artisan producers, hand ladled and unpasteurised.”
In terms of her customers’ preferred choice of wines Gaëlle confirms that the Saint Emilion always does well and in the summer it was the rosés. She adds that for Christmas they’ll be getting in the ‘big guns’ such as Château Neuf du Pape and many Champagnes. “We’ve been doing a few tastings recently, which is obviously a good perk of the job!” And what about the current fixation on fizz? “Oh Prosecco is so last year!” she chides. “We sell Cremant here for £6 a glass and it is so much nicer, it’s basically like a Champagne but you can’t call it one.”
If you don’t live in Tunbridge Wells fear not, as you can still get your hands on all of Fromage & French’s fancies thanks to the new online shop which will also offer free delivery in the TN1 and TN2 areas.
It’s all a far cry from Gaëlle’s original career in publishing. “I have always wanted to do this – I even found a business plan I’d written about 15 years ago but I was made redundant, had children and then my husband died four years ago. And when things like that happen you just think ‘do you know what, you do only live once. What’s the worst that can happen? Oh, it already has …’ Something like that gives you a different perspective on life and I thought if I don’t do this I’ll regret it and if it all goes pear shaped at least I tried it.”
Somehow I doubt that there’s very little chance of that happening . . .