The Cheesier Side of Life
When I first arrived—jetlagged and surrounded by unfamiliar people—at the Charles de Gaulle airport, I could only think about two things: the next time I would get to sleep, and the moment I would get to eat my first piece of real French cheese. As a lifelong cheese-lover and admitted Francophile, cheese had become one of the central elements of the elaborate Parisian fantasies preceding my journey abroad—what type I would buy, which wine I would drink it with, which monument I would visit while eating it—but I have rapidly seen that the French cheese scene is even more impressive and culturally important than I first imagined.
During our first lengthy meal together, my host family wasted no time in explaining to me the significance of cheese in French cuisine and culture. After the meat course (yes, all of our meals include at least three courses), my host mother emerged from the kitchen with an elaborate cheese platter boasting five different varieties of cheese. We then proceeded to enjoy an entire course that consisted solely of slices of cheese and bread—an experience that, for me, may have eclipsed the entire rest of the meal. As I stuffed myself, my host mother informed me that there are over 400 different types of cheese in France, and she encouraged me to sample them all during my three-month stay in Paris. Challenge accepted.
In addition to the incredible bonus of dining on artisan cheeses during all of my meals, France’s love for and meticulous production of cheese has enhanced my abroad experience in many other ways, most notably in terms of money. In the United States, nice cheeses are certainly prized, but function as more of a gourmet food item due to their high price. In France, however, since almost all of the cheese is made locally and exists in considerable abundance, quality cheese costs surprisingly little—ideal for a college student’s budget. As I stood for the first time in Franprix, my neighborhood supermarket, my infatuation with cheese overwhelmed me and I ended up buying five different varieties of cheese, since I naturally required a cheese from each milk-producing animal—cow, goat, sheep—as well as a selection of hard and soft cheeses. Tempted to hug the cashier, I ecstatically discovered that this bout of indulgence cost me less than 20 euros, thus becoming the most cost-effective purchase that I have made thus far during my time abroad.
This week, my love for and understanding of French cheese was taken to an entirely new level when I had the opportunity to attend a degustation de fromage (cheese tasting) with my study-abroad program. After arriving at the fromagerie—the French term for a cheese and wine shop—we were greeted by a man carrying a tray heaped with numerous huge blocks of cheese. As we eyed the cheese, he explained the entire cheese-making process—a veritable culinary art form. The following is what I gleaned from his description, although I suspect that some information was lost in translation: once you have obtained high-quality milk and allowed it sour, you then curdle the milk so that it begins to clump together into curds, which are then cut, heated, and molded. The cheese is then left to mature, often in a cave in which bacteria and humidity help to impart a specific flavor into the cheese. At all stages of the cheese-making process, supposedly minor changes result in notable differences in texture, taste, and rind; the French have perfected the minute details of these steps to produce hundreds of different types of cheese.
The old fromager then gave our group ten varieties of cheese from numerous regions of France to sample—five hard cheeses and five soft. He paired all of the soft cheeses with a red wine and all of the hard cheeses with a white, and instructed us to eat half of each piece of cheese before tasting the wine and half after tasting the wine in order to “open” the flavor of the cheese. We also tasted the same type of cheese at multiple ages to see how the maturation process altered the flavor and texture of the cheese—the young chèvre (goat cheese) that we tasted, for example, had only aged for a few months to yield a soft texture and mild flavor, while the older chèvre, aged for over a year, was so hard and salty that it sucked all of the moisture out of my mouth.
The cheeses all tasted amazing—the aged compté, though, was my favorite, and I’d highly recommend that you try it—but the fromagerie owner’s knowledge of cheese-making and flavor was truly astounding. The fact that a Parisian can base his entire livelihood around cheese speaks to the product’s importance as a staple of French cuisine and culture. In my experience thus far, the French’s love of cheese has proven pleasantly accurate—hopefully, I can continue to fulfill all of my cheese-inspired dreams in the upcoming months of my studies abroad.