My fascination (read: obsession) with French cheese began after I moved to Paris and heard that Charles de Gaulle, upon being named President, quipped, roughly, “How can one govern a nation which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
I was curious: Could I find enough cheeses for my blog, A Year in Fromage? After 365 posts, I still had cheeses to taste, so I continued. At 500, I was interviewed on both national French radio and TV, because, even to the French, this is an amazing feat.
The French delight in suggesting local cheeses that I might not know. Once I met a stranger at Montparnasse train station for her to hand off Kreuzig, fresh from a Bretagne market. If we had been in trench coats on a foggy night, it would have had all the makings of clandestine espionage in World War II. Except we were passing delicious cheese, and for that, there is no resistance.
I link each cheese to a story about life in France. Seeking the perfect pairing has led me to subjects that I wouldn’t otherwise research: The evolution of men’s bathing suits. Why the French won’t neuter their dogs. Queen Margot’s breasts and sexual eccentricities. The French belief that there are only six continents.
It’s also led me to unusual cheeses—sheep, goat, cow, even one horse. I’ve eaten Banon de Banon after scraping off maggots that aren’t supposed to be there, and Tomme Acajou, with crust-eating mites that are. I’ve yet to taste the infamous Corsican cheese with live maggots, but it’s high on my wish list. I’ll be revolted, but think of the bragging rights.
I’ve learned that American Muenster is not French Munster. Unwrapping odiferous Alsatian Munster in the cinema for your kids, meanwhile, is a total rookie move. (That was Cheese No. 3, so forgive me.) On the other hand, dunking Maroilles slices in coffee is something a native northerner would do. Though I don’t love Maroilles, or coffee, they’re better combined.
My project has given me serious street cred here in France, where people worship wine, bread and cheese—I get to cover all three. Bleu de Severac spread on baguette, accompanied by Sauternes, is my idea of heaven (add pear jam, and call it breakfast). The French are flattered by my attention, knowing that just as wine isn’t simply fermented grapes, cheese isn’t only congealed milk: it’s terroir, history, language, traditions, politics and people.
I haven’t gained weight, and my cholesterol is unchanged. Chalk that up to not owning a car in Paris, and to inviting friends to tastings. Most of the cheeses are unpasteurized with beneficial bacteria—that helps, too. And no, I’m not tired of cheese, though I’ll turn up my nose at anything bland and banal. The best cheeses, like fine stories and wine, are rich and complex. Also oozy, creamy, floral, crumbly, nutty, tangy or downright stinky.