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Open for business amid Japan earthquake: A French cheese shop stands alone

Many shops were destroyed by the Japan earthquake and tsunami. For food, this journalist has been reliant on the kindness of strangers, and one unlikely French cheese specialty shop.

By Staff Writer / March 16, 2011



Sendai, Japan

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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I am having a Marie-Antoinette moment.

It was she, the wife of King Louis XVI of France, who famously said when she was told that the restless populace of Paris had no bread to eat, "let them eat cake.” The French Revolution followed shortly thereafter.

Reporting from the Japanese towns and villages hit by last week’s tsunami, where the shops left standing are all still closed, I have had to rely on the kindness of strangers for food and the basic supplies of instant noodles, powdered soup, and cookies that I brought with me from Tokyo.

The other night I was grateful for a couple of cold sticky-rice balls flavored with seaweed that a relief worker gave me. Another day I devoured a vacuum-pack of high-energy biscuits that someone was handing out at the emergency operations headquarters here.

Even in Tokyo, 250 kilometers south of the disaster area, the supermarket shelves are empty of staples as residents stock up in preparation for a radiation scare in the wake of accidents at nuclear reactors at Fukushima.

Here in Sendai, the city closest to the epicenter of Friday’s earthquake, foodstores are shut or empty. There is virtually nothing to be had to eat.

And yet… For some reason, the couple who run “Aux Bons Ferments” opened their doors on Tuesday to a cornucopia of their specialty product – French cheese. Real French cheese, and a selection the like of which I have rarely seen outside France.

I cannot buy rice. I cannot buy bread. I cannot buy vegetables. Instead, I find myself forced to subsist on creamy Camembert, a tangy blue cheese from the Auvergne region, and slices of Italian smoked ham, which the shop sells as a sideline.

“Let me eat cake.”

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