the cheese man knows his onions

I live very close to Monoprix--a shop selling clothes, housewares, and food at reasonable but not rock-bottom prices. In the food department there is a fresh fish counter (overpowering in aroma and avoided by me), a fresh meat counter, and a counter with a wonderful array of cheeses sold by weight. (All these things are also available pre-cut and wrapped).

At this cheese counter, a sign on the wall says:

The key word here, coulant, is of course from couler, to flow, as rivers, tears, or taps; applied to cheese, it describes that perfect soft, flowing, almost runny texture that a ripe Brie -- or local San Marcellin -- has at its heart. A coulant wine is smooth, a coulant writing style is free-flowing.

So, coulant used figuratively of a person means "easy-going" (Robert & Collins) or d'humeur accomodante (Rey's Dictionnaire Historique).  I found no other translation offered in either book. And here is where it becomes interesting: easy-going and of accommodating temperament would seem to be positive attributes. But in the Monoprix sign,  the boast is that the cheeseman himself is NOT coulant  (while his Brie should be, and is). Coulant-ness in him would be a negative trait.

At first I thought the sign referred only to the person (often a woman) working at the counter selling the cheese, but as I write it comes to me that it might refer just as much to the cheese buyer, the person who selects the cheese for the shop and supervises its quality. And of course, when it comes to quality, especially of food, one should never be easy-going in France.

With regard to the cheese he offers the customers, he should not be soppy, or wishy-washy, or "wet" as we British say (more liquid metaphors), but, instead, he must be precise, controlling, and vigilant for any defects in quality. Actually it probably applies to the seller as well -- he must not be slipshod enough to allow any inferior cheese into a customer's panier. (I rather like "slipshod" as a translation for coulant in this negative sense. Opinions welcome).

This sign pleases me very much, with its elegant play on words and its emphasis on quality. Definite opinions, clarity of thought, knowing what's what, drawing a sharp distinction between something good and something that doesn't come up to scratch--all that is highly valued in this culture. This attitude can lead to a certain inflexibility, as famously encountered in officialdom; on the other hand, it produces on-time buses and trains. In my experience, if someone says they will deliver your new washing machine between 10:00 and noon, they do.

But this punctiliousness applies most of all to food. (And is completely lacking in surprising areas--of which more anon). I wouldn't presume to analyse or define Frenchness; I can only speak out of my short experience so far. But to me this sign by the cheese counter seems quintessentially gallic-- So French.

* Literally: When it comes to quality, our cheese specialist is much less runny than his brie.