“If you think of cheese as a piece of music, then the cheesemaker is the composer and the refiner is the performer” 

It is thus that Jean-François Dubois briefly resumes his craft. A craft based on precision, in which no wrong notes are tolerated. La Finarde is established in an old airship hangar in the citadel at Arras, and the place will not only make your mouth water, but also expand your horizons and pique your curiosity thanks to the passion driving the man in charge, Jean-François Dubois. 

Encounter with a virtuoso refiner

Where did your passion for this job come from?

I started as a cheesemaker because it ran in the family. Our company had been around for fifty years or so, and had always made dairy produce, before then gradually specialising in cheeses as of the 1990s. As for my "passion", it's a more of a state of mind which works perfectly for me. It’s great to be able to give myself heart and soul to what I do, and to want to do it as well as possible regardless of what the cost might be in terms of energy, time, financial investment, or so on. It's true that cheese is a pretty special field for that, for it brings together a whole range of different localities, traditional know-hows, local cultures and history, and an almost infinite range of variations in flavour, aesthetic, and smell.

You have been refining cheese in Arras citadel for a little over a year now. Why did you choose this place, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List?

I'd been looking for more suitable premises to develop our cheese refining for a few years when I heard about this set of seventeenth-century buildings via the CUA, who was looking for someone for them. Studies showed that the old "gunpowder stores" or "bunkers" were suitable for refining, and the place known as the "airship hangar" at the foot of the ramparts – which was difficult to convert for any other usage – perfectly suited our needs for the rest of our business. So we ended up in a historic site and very glad to be here, but it wasn't premeditated in any way.

You offer a unique range of Dutch cheeses refined in France. But you must have a favourite amongst the various cheeses produced in the region.

Let's be clear about it. Our Dutch cheeses are "regional" produce. The real cheesemaking traditions in the Nord were built up well before the current borders were in place, and especially the period when "Spanish" strongholds were being built in Bruges and Arras. And then cheese refining needs to be understood as an integral part of their manufacture, it’s a genuine transformation. Especially for cheeses such as Mimolette and Gouda which can be refined for several years. My cheeses, though made in Holland, are as much a produce of Arras as they are of the Netherlands, and that is what makes them unique – and recognised as such by ever more of my renowned fellow refiners. But if there is one French cheese from the Nord I would single out, it is Bergues, once again because it is refined in a very specific manner, deeply rooted in the urban tradition of this product, but one which is now unique. This very particular cheese deserves to take its place once again within French gastronomic heritage.

You regularly lay on guided visits. Is sharing your passion important to you? Do you hope to spark a similar vocation?

Rather than visits (which are difficult to organise in places which are necessarily short on space) what I enjoy is doing tastings to introduce people to new cheeses. It is a gastronomic experience and a way of giving people an idea of what refining is all about, and the craft behind transforming the cheese. It's often an opportunity to meet new people and build up very rewarding dialogues.

Jean-François Dubois’ favourite places in Arras and its surroundings

What is your favourite restaurant in Arras or the surrounding area?

There are three places I have recently enjoyed going to: the Bulle d'O in Arras, the Colibri in Douvrin, and Sauce et Leplat in Sailly-Labourse. To my mind they all display a similar concern with serving fresh, unadulterated, seasonal products, and doing all the preparation "in-house", with a twist of creativity that adds new zest to true traditions.

Do you have any anecdotes about the area? Such as some place that has marked you in particular?

I don't often go there, but I always experience the same emotion when I pass at the foot of the towers of the Abbey Mont Saint Eloi, because of what they say about the creative power inspired by the region’s ecclesiastical and monastic heritage, and about the destructive folly of men once caught up in war or revolution.

When a friend comes to visit the region what do you recommend he visit first?

The first place I take visiting friends to is Vimy Ridge, for the beauty of the site with its blues, whites, and greens, especially on a fine day. Because of the view you have there, enabling you to take in how the region is composed of countryside and dense urban areas, as well as seeing its history at a glance what with all the slag heaps. And above all for the deep feeling of respect and gratitude it inspires towards all those, often foreigners from very far away, who laid down their lives for our freedom.

Cheese tastings

Option one: cheeses from the low countries

Tasting of a selection of three regional cheeses refined in the cellars at the Citadel. You will find out about the history of the cheeses, as well the secrets behind their manufacture and refining, before tasting them at various stages in the refining process. The cheeses are served with a selection of regional beers.

                 Between 20 and 29 people: €7.50 per person.

                 30 people and over: €6.50 per person

Option two: the Citadel's cheese platter

La Finarde selects 8 outstanding cheeses from the 150 cheeses and more always refined there, together with three wines to accompany them. This option can be adapted to the group by selecting a theme, region, season, or so on. The tasting is led by a cheese refiner, who provides commentary as well as answering all your questions about cheese, its history, producers, refining, and so on.

                 Between 20 and 29 people: €11 per person

                 30 people and over: €9.50 per person

Visit the La Finarde website to find out when tastings are being held, as well as where you can buy these cheeses.