Sunday, November 29, 2009

Say cheese!

This entry is the second installment in a 3-part series on the crown jewels of French cuisine. Last week, we covered the wide world of Parisian bread; next week, we seriously get into the vino. But today it’s all about the cheese.

As Meg Ryan’s character says to Kevin Kline’s character in French Kiss (one of my all-time favorite movies, even if it is a bit … cheesy. Har har), “Did you know that there are 452 official government cheeses in this country? Don't you think that's incredible? To come up with 452 ways of classifying what is basically a bacterial process?”

It is incredible, all this French cheese. Not to bash my motherland or anything, but let’s face it: American cheese is a joke. I mean, I like sharp cheddar as much as the next guy, but let’s be honest: our cheese comes in two colors—orange and off-white—and we turn it into such oddities as string cheese, cottage cheese, hamburger cheese, low-fat and non-fat cheese, soy cheese, spray cheese, Velveeta and my personal favorite, Cheez Whiz (at which point it is no longer appropriate to refer to the product as
cheese per se, but rather “cheez,” just to truly express the extent of the denaturalization to which it has been subjected). Sad, I tell you; sad, sad, sad.

Some will point out that America also makes delicious farm cheeses and that I’m being too harsh because Wisconsin and Vermont and even my own California all make great American cheese. Just look:

I have never understood this ad campaign. California makes incredible wine, grows delicious avocados and citrus and also produces some really tasty almonds. But I’m sorry; never have I been wowed by the cheese selection at any of the many, many, many Californian grocery stores that I have frequented.

France, on the other hand, will never be beat when it comes to cheese. Mmmmm. Walk into any French grocery store, no matter how small, and you’ll be offered a range of cheeses that commands respect. And those are just the grocery stores! Fromageries are a whole other category! I can actually smell the cheese just thinking about it. Oh wait, that’s because my boyfriend just opened the refrigerator. (Side note: I think I’ll start referring to him in this blog as “G.” so as to semi-preserve his anonymity while avoiding overuse of the sophomoric term “my boyfriend.”)

Yes, it
s true: French cheese is stinky. Delicious, mind you, but stinky. G. and I keep our cheese selection in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator, next to an open box of baking soda (sold only in pharmacies here, incidentally; perhaps to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands?). But do you think that has any real effect on the odor? Not really, no. However, the alternative—cheese elimination—is unthinkable, and so we ignore the odor. Or rather, I ignore the odor. Being French, G. probably thinks that that’s just how cheese smells. And if we’re being technical, he’s right; that is how cheese smells … when you haven’t pasteurized the hell out of it (eh-hem FDA). What is so scary about raw-milk cheese? The French have been eating it for centuries, and the last I heard, raw-milk cheese consumption has yet to have any impact on French mortality rates. So what’s the deal? On the flip side, you can of course get pasteurized cheese in France, too (Pasteur was French after all), but it only serves as a bland—albeit less stinky—alternative to real cheese.

As we celebrated Thanksgiving this past week, I think the following cheese and Thanksgiving-related story is appropriate: in 1999, I was living with a French family just outside of Paris while participating in my university’s foreign exchange program. At the end of November, my brother flew out from California to spend a few weeks with me and celebrate Thanksgiving à la française. Over the course of his stay, he had many opportunities to sample a wide array of French cheeses, all of which he just LOVED but, sadly, none of which he could find in the US upon his return. 

So two years ago for Christmas I thought I would surprise him with a real raw milk camembert. I lovingly selected it at the airport boutiques at Charles de Gaulle airport, had it double wrapped in tinfoil and put into a little container that I had brought along with me to mask its odor. The flight went just fine; I even put the bag in the overhead compartment so as to avoid any telltale scents from escaping. However, as is often the case, my connecting flight was canceled due to poor weather (which the airline naturally classified as an “act of God,” as if God Himself had wanted to teach me a lesson about smuggling unpasteurized dairy products into America). The result was that I had to spend the night in a hotel near the airport and take the first available flight the next morning. Did the hotel room have a refrigerator in it? No. 

By the time my cheese and I finally touched down the following day, I was more than ready to hop into my brother’s truck and begin the 90-minute commute to our parents’ home in the mountains. However, after greetings and hugs, my brother’s first comment was something along the lines of, “WHAT is that smell?!” Terribly proud of myself, I answered, “I brought you a surprise!” His response: You’re not putting that thing in my truck. I just cleaned it.” So we put the cheese in the truck bed with my suitcase and headed off. In the end, my family was touched that I had gone to such lengths to bring them this cheesy treat from across the Atlantic, but no one wanted to eat it. “It smells like sweaty feet!” was my mom’s first reaction. “Pheeeeew! Something's ripe in here!” was my dad’s (of course, by that time the cheese had been traveling for something like 42 hours. How would you smell?). Being the good sports that they are, though, they at least tried it. The verdict? The taste was great, but the odor was just too overpowering for their uninitiated noses. So in the end, we brought the cheese to the annual Christmas party thrown by some very dear friends of ours who know and celebrate France and its 452 glorious cheeses. They loved it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment