I used to be intimidated by cheese.
Thanks to an expat assignment, I lived in France between 2009 and 2012. Cheese is to France like cold is to Antarctica: it’s unavoidable. Cheese is available at all meals, morning, noon, and night. You can have it for a starter, a main dish, or a dessert. Every town in France we’ve ever visited, regardless of size, has at least one fromagerie. At some point, by dint of ubiquity, you are effectively forced into learning more about cheese.
Thus while there was no shortage of means or opportunity, motive was a bit tougher. Becoming more knowledgeable about cheese meant taking a very significant leap over cultural and digestive hurdles, each of which was more than a little intimidating.
Despite there being an excellent fromagerie not five minutes from our first apartment, the first cheese we bought was from the Franprix, an ordinary grocery chain with a standard selection of French cheeses. It was an Ossau-Iraty, (post coming shortly), a mildly tangy and firm sheep's cheese from the French side of the Basque country. Purchasing the cheese at the Franprix allowed me to make my selection with zero personal interactions, thus sparing me the embarrassment of being incapable of communicating both what I liked and how much I wanted.
It took nine months until I felt fluent enough in French to venture into a cheese store. While one can find a decent variety of cheese in groceries all over France, going to a fromagerie is the condition sine qua non for any serious exploration. A good fromagerie is a temple to aged refined milk products; the fromager, its priest; the customers, its supplicants.
Upon entry, I realized how utterly unprepared I was for the task at hand. For my entire life, cheese had only come in one form: the hermetically-sealed, preservative-laden, perfectly-formed lump. You either bought it in a block, or you had it sliced for sandwiches at the deli counter. My Franprix experience was pretty similar; the only difference was that the cheese wasn’t preserved. Yet here I was confronted by at least one hundred neatly arranged varieties of cheese in shapes and sizes I had never seen, none of which was hermetically sealed, in a room that felt inappropriately refrigerated. I was assaulted by the foreign smell. My gastrointestinal reservations were surely not misplaced, I thought. There would be no escaping the internal distress I was about to inflict upon myself.
Happily, I lived through the experience. Perhaps the most remarkable finding was physiological: I had no ill effects whatsoever. (Imagine that. Fresh, natural food with no additives or preservatives is better for you. Tastes better, too. This goes for meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, fish, bread, chocolate, and all the derivatives thereof.) More importantly though, I found myself capable of asking for the recommendations of the welcoming sellers who were happy to steer me toward a boundless variety of flavors, smells, and textures. I was hooked.
By the time I returned to the US, I realized I had a regret. I had paid too little attention to what I liked, and where it came from. Despite numerous visits, I could never overcome my awe of the place to really focus on the product. A friend of mine once told me, “N’oublie jamais que la France est un pays de terre.” Most smoothly translated, it means “Never forget that France is an agricultural country,” although it is more apt to translate the phrase literally: “France is a country of the earth.” Every natural product is defined by its terroir, the unique combination of climate, soil, plant, and beast, that, when fashioned by culture and practices often centuries old, creates tastes that, for this American at least, were heretofore unimaginable.
Our return to France allows me that rare chance to make amends and to learn more about cheese. It’s my hope to become a real amateur in the French sense of the word: a fan, a novice, an explorer.
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