It’s important that you know I really do love living in France. There’s an evangelical passion for cheese here and I do love cheese! There are more than 500 official cheeses in France. There can be many varieties within each type of cheese, leading some to claim closer to 1,500 different types of French cheese. Cheese is both revered and legally protected here.
Despite being a big fan of cheese, here’s the thing. I need a cheat sheet. Crib Notes if you will. Something akin to the Scoville scale for peppers (that famous scale that conveys to consumers the ‘hotness’ of each variety of pepper). As far as I can tell there’s no official ranking of ‘cheese stinkiness’ – and this is either an epic failure on the part of French bureaucracy or just a nasty inside joke that the French play on the rest of world. Given France’s love for bureaucracy, one would think that a ‘Puante’ (French for stinky) scale would not only have been developed, highly argued over, and strictly adhered to, but also exported to cheese shops worldwide and with the snobby expectation that it be globally accepted as the final word on all cheese.
I’m going to begin my own Puante movement. It is my humanitarian mission in life. Someone needs to save the ex-pat pallets of this world from erroneously buying and attempting to consume cheeses which smell and taste like they’ve grown their moldy rinds in guano-filled caves before being moved to a teenager’s sweaty footlocker that’s kept in the hold of a fishing boat for the final bit of fermentation.
My letters home will explain better why this is necessary.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Ludovic’s family, friends, and the lovely occupants of our village have been made aware of my love and curiosity about cheese . They seem to have their own mission now… Educate the American properly about all things cheese. I love the French. It’s really sweet that they’ve all decided to help me out. I’ll try to keep a journal about the cheeses I taste so that I can enjoy them again.
On Saturday our new neighbors stopped by to say hello. Under the husband’s arm is a beautiful loaf of bread (pan normal if you really like reading details). Introductions and cheek kisses made, we make our way to the dining room (where all Norman entertaining is done). Our neighbor lady pulls a gorgeous wedge of Brie from her handbag and asks if I’m familiar with Brie. I don’t know how to say ‘Duh!’ In French, so I just answer, “Of course, it’s one of my favorite cheeses. I can’t wait to taste what you’ve brought for us. Who would like a glass a wine”? (This is a stupid question since the French are one of top consuming counties in the world with an annual per person consumption of 12 gallons while Americans consume 2.5 gallons per person per year). So, glasses full, bread broken into chunks and lying in the middle of the table, I begin my formal education. I’ve eaten Brie for decades. I love it. I can hardly wait to taste the ‘real’ thing.
Madame very ceremoniously pulls back the cellophane wrapping and drops this buttery soft cheese on a plate and passes it my way with a warm and encouraging smile. She seems like such a nice a lady and I look forward to becoming friends. And then the smell hits me. I trudge on and smear this gooey concoction on the crusty bread and try not to breathe in as I take a bite. The texture is smooth and creamy and the flavor is not as strong as the smell. This is going to be fine. I can totally do this. I try to smile appreciatively but fear that it comes across as a grimace. I swallow and attempt to cleanse my pallet with wine. The Brie residue in my mouth however, changes the taste of the wine to something more akin to furniture polish. I try not to show my discomfort to our neighbors, but it’s clear now that we will not be friends. They cannot be trusted.
*Puante Scale: There must be some kind of treaty between the US and France that prohibits Americans from ingesting this particular form of torture. On the Puante Scale this little ‘delight’ ranks an easy 8 out of 10. Keep out of reach of children.
Dear Mom and Dad,
It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote to you about my cheese journey. On Sunday the family scheduled an outing to visit a famous farm that produces Pont L’Eveque cheese.
Living in Normandie means that the Pont L’Eveque cheese farm is just 20 minutes away from our cottage. This French delicacy is one of the oldest-known types of cheese, dating back to the 13th century. I’ve been told it’s an experience not to be missed. Our convoy of miniature cars makes its way to an idyllic farm. It’s absolutely beautiful. Green pastures with wild flowers, a little pond with water lilies, and centuries-old stone barns. Ahhhh… Normandie. It’s picture postcard perfect. The proprietor offers tours when he’s not milking or overseeing the cheese production. He is a caricature of a French farmer complete with little hat, neck scarf, and cane. He goes into quite a bit of detail about the love and care that his family have put into this farm and its animals since the before the French Revolution. Happy cows create the best milk and therefore the best cheese. I like this guy. He’s clearly very proud of his heritage and product. After walking through the farm and successfully avoiding the steamy piles of cow poo, we make our way to the cheese rooms. My French is passable but I truly have no idea what’s being said about the complicated process of cheese making. I hear blah blah blah cow milk, blah blah blah wait in the dark, blah blah blah and bingo. No kidding. He actually says, ‘and bingo’ while pointing to the finished squares of cheese. It’s been fascinating but now comes the good part and what we’ve all been waiting for – the tasting room.
Except it’s not a room – there’s a huge harvest table on the lawn laden with fresh flowers, loaves of bread, bottles of wine and lovely little white squares of Pont L’Eveque cheese. I do a happy dance inside my head and find a chair. This is the France I’ve always dreamed about. Engrossed in the dream, I ignored the quiet warning bell of alarm when the farmer began pulling apart the bread with his farm-filthy bare hands. He was telling us that Pont L’Eveque cheese is best served on the non-moule bread baked just down the road by a woman named Clotilde but I have a hard time paying any further attention because the site of him pulling his pocket knife from his apron (the same knife we just saw him use to do some sort of repair work on a piece of equipment) is being wiped off on his trouser leg before it carves the squares of cheese onto a plate for us. I’ve been so preoccupied by this whole knife thing that I’ve quit listening to what he’s said about the wine pairing and the right ratio of cheese to bread for optimum enjoyment. I try to catch up with the conversation but have learned that it’s easier to watch my hosts and try to copy their actions when my turn comes. Ludovic passes me a chuck of dark and heavily crusted bread and by example and prompting me with his eyes, I tear my bread into apricot-sized pieces.
I am faintly aware of an ammonia smell emanating from the far end of the table. My American brain associates this smell with cleanliness and I am mollified for a moment until I realize that the ammonia stench is actually coming from the cheese plate. The rest of the family are chatting and laughing and happily shoveling Pont L’Eveque into their mouths. It’s now my turn and everyone’s watching and waiting for me to take a taste and then obviously fall into a nirvana-like state. As I grab my knife to spread the cheese on my bread the farmer goes into a full running seizure and pulls my knife from my hand. He says that one should never ‘spread’ a Pont L’Eveque. It bruises the cheese. Just delicately place the already expertly cut pieces onto my bread and shove the whole thing into my mouth. Righty oh. He’s the master after all. He’s perturbed at having to show me how to do this after he so clearly explained this to us earlier (my brain must have skipped during the knife cleaning event). I would have loved to give him my full attention just then since he was keen on replaying his whole speech just for my benefit, but the close proximity of the ammonia-heavy cheese plate has begun to make my eyes water. I am trying my best not to embarrass the family any further in their own neighborhood, but as the cheese rises the 12 short inches from the plate to my mouth my eyes go from merely watering to absolute blindness. This can’t get any worse can it?
Wrong. The stinky cheese has infiltrated the open wounds in my mouth that were created by the heavily crusted bread. I am now totally blind from both the pain and ammonia poisoning quickly traveling from my sinuses directly to my brain. Call the EPA. There’s a uranium spill in my mouth. I pray for this to be the final exam in my cheese education. I can’t handle any more. Where’s the cheddar?
*Puante Scale for this one – 10. Avoid at all cost!
It’s May in France and today was just one of the many national holidays this month. We’re looking forward to dinner with Yann and Celine, dear friends of Ludo’s, they are funny, kind, intelligent, and generous humans.
I don’t understand all the holidays but am fascinated by the scheduling of the holidays and their ultimate extension so that folks can finagle a three or four day weekend out of each one. Interestingly this means that things pretty much shut down for the month of May. When I mention this to our friends (who are on one of those four day weekends) they tell me “non” people still work a few days in May and things proceed as normal. The real vacation time comes late in summer when people take four weeks off in June, July, or August for much needed rest and relaxation from their grueling 35 hour work weeks (which after the ritual kissing, coffee consumption, and cigarette smoking each morning and afternoon, plus gorgeous long lunches during which they turn cell phones off, means they actually work many fewer hours per week). I can just imagine that you’re turning green with envy at this fabulous lifestyle. You should also know that although the French work fewer hours than Americans do, they have the highest hourly productivity of any country. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh and judgmental to the American system of living to work as opposed to the lovely French system of working to live. I apologize. That’s not like me at all. It could be the brain damage I suffered after my last cheesy adventure or it’s a side effect of having my intestines in a straight pipe that is completely blocked with powerful daily intake of French cheeses.
We get through the required small talk and jump quickly to the topic of my new and certain love for elegant French fromages. Since I’m a guest in this country and know that in my own small way I am an ambassador for my own country, I use my diplomatic skills and keep the retelling of my education and experience light and positive. I think I’m fairly successful with only a few concerned looks being shot my direction when the decibel level of my grumbling innards is so loud that it wakes their sleeping toddler. They giggle a bit and show some much appreciated sympathy while telling me about the beautifully gentle cheeses they’ve brought for dinner. I give them a look of suspicion but they assure me that I’m in no danger. My blood pressure is alarming high. This can’t be good for me. I’ve consumed so much cheese now that my cholesterol level is must be high enough for me to be diagnosed as a solid.
Celine and I make our way into the kitchen to put together a fantastically simple dinner of roasted chicken and vegetables. She tells me that Yann put quite a lot of thought into which cheeses to bring. They’ve travelled all over the world and understand the culture shock that can occur with food. They’ve spent entire holidays in other countries feeding their young boys nothing but Nutella and bread. They get it. Whew!
I hear the back door open and close and watch as Ludo and Yann shadow box at each other on their way to Yann’s car to fetch luggage. Why is it that when men play the game is so often ‘war’?
I’m trying to be positive but the cheese hasn’t even made it into the house and I already know that I’m going to need to revise my Puante Scale to reflect a measure from 1 to 10 for all cheeses except French. French cheeses will need to be measured by adding the sign for ‘plus’. What’s coming my way isn’t just stinky cheese – it’s putrid. It has its own evil life force. I’m expecting to see the Darth Vader of cheeses creep across my threshold at any moment and threaten my existence unless I pledge allegiance to its dark master.
Our so-called friends have “lovingly” brought two very different cheeses for tonight’s dinner. The first is Roquefort. The second is Camembert. We have both of these in America. No problem right? WHATEVER!! Apparently we get the dumbed down version. I’ve never smelled anything like this.
Yann tells me, but I find it hard to believe, that Roquefort is one of the most sought-after cheeses on the planet. It’s produced out of raw sheep’s milk and matured in caves around the small village of Roquefort, Southern France. He says that if it’s not grown in those specific caves, it’s illegal to call it a Roquefort cheese. All those American versions are just shams. Roquefort is known as the ‘King of Cheeses’, but Yann says that many people (Americans in particular) are too chicken to try it due to its smell and blue mold. How do you say “No shit?!?!” in French? But I’m no chicken and I have to prove that Americans can not only eat this ‘King’ but enjoy it. Serve it up French boy!
Open mouth and insert Roquefort. I’d call out for help but my lungs won’t cooperate. I can only imagine that this is what drowning feels like – me scratching for air and there’s nothing but sulfur gasses available in this atmosphere. All the clean and breathable air has been sucked out by Vader’s Dark Side. The Force doesn’t exist. Certainly not as it applies to fromage of the French sort.
I excuse myself from the table under the ruse of needing to check the chicken. Oh how I wish I were that chicken just roasting slowly in my own skin. What a welcome relief that would be from the excruciating experience in my mouth. It feels like I’ve just used Drano as a mouthwash. If this is what my mouth feels like, what in the world is happening to my innards and oh dear god, what’s going happen when my body tries to void this delicacy ?!? Please let ‘Death by Constipation’ be covered by our socialized health-care system. I try to quietly search our small cabinet of medicines for something that will dull the pain enough so that I can stand upright once again and make my way back to our guests.
The next ‘cheese’ is Camembert de Normandy. Some would argue that Camembert de Normandy smells like the secret project of a chemical company. I would argue that’s giving the stink too much credit. Despite its stench, Camembert is loved the world over for its soft, runny texture. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and left to mature for three weeks, it’s normally eaten with a spoon. It’s now a subject of a war between the small traditional producers and the country’s industrial dairies who want to use pasteurized milk instead of raw milk. Cheese with a spoon huh? Sounds like mustard gas in yogurt form.
Apparently my friendship knows no bounds. I not only eat what could easily be classified a Weapon of Mass Destruction by the UN, but I do so with a smile on my face. Madeleine Albright could take diplomacy lessons from me. Camembert needs to be on the list of no-no’s for prisoner interrogation at Gitmo.
*Puante Scale: forget the plus sign. How do you say “Call 911” in French?
Our friends have just left and we’re quickly rotating linens since we’re expecting Ludo’s family from Paris to spent some time with us country mice.
Ludovic’s aunt and uncle visit from Paris from time and time and I always love seeing them. There’s always great conversation and tons of laughter when they’re here. After they arrived this time they go on and on very dramatically about the 2 hour drive and the substantial price of being forced to drive their car for some reason. But whatever. I’m too busy helping Ludo’s mother get her house ready and the table set for the visiting family to really listen to the travails of their travel. Plus, I have to make special effort to set the table appropriately. Since my last cheese ‘incident’ I have only regained sight in my left eye making the symmetrical placement of flat wear much more difficult than one might think. On the upside, my tongue shows promise of recovery in the coming days. All I can think about is the fact that I’ve dined with Jean-Fancois and Colette before and I know for a fact that today’s menu will be far gentler on my delicate American palette. They like me and have said as much to my face. Things are looking up.
Monique, Ludo’s mom and a truly lovely woman, has spent all morning roasting ducks and marinating various animals’ livers for today’s lunch. I’m sincerely hoping (in vain I know) that today’s lunch will be cheese free. It’s not an entirely selfish hope. I farted earlier and the family dog collapsed in the cloud of sulfur that my recent ‘cheese education’ left in my wake. I don’t think I can take much more and I feel badly that the dog might have to be euthanized.
The lunch table is full of animated talk about EU government policies. I have no idea what they’re debating and concentrate my efforts on cutting the chunks of liver into teeny tiny pieces and pushing it around on my plate in hopes of convincing Ludo’s mother that I’ve eaten her house specialty with great gusto. But she’s a mom and wise to my tricks. So with enthusiasm, she comments that I must still be hungry and asks her brother-in-law if he was able to bring my ‘special gift’ from Paris. With obvious pride and a smile as big as the Siene, Jean-Francois says that yes indeed he has something very unique for me. Dear god, please let it be a scarf.
He goes on to say that he had to go to three different shops to find what he was looking for. Once found, the Epoisses cheese that was allegedly Napolean’s favorite, had to be specially driven to me. When I thanked him and his wife for the special care that they’d taken in delivering this delicacy, I learned that it wasn’t any need for special care, but a nationwide law prohibiting this particular cheese from all forms of public transportation. Ah, there’s the light bulb moment I was looking for earlier. I now understand why they drove instead of taking the train like they usually do. Ludo’s uncle speaks slowly and carefully making sure that I understand this ‘special’ cheese, Epoisses, is made from raw cow’s milk and its rind is washed with pomace brandy. If it starts to smell too strongly of ammonia (or like someone who hasn’t showered in a week), you should throw it (or them) away. He’s a funny guy.
While he’s explaining this my internal voice is screaming, “WHAT?!? There’s a cheese so foul that you can’t carry in it on the train!?! And now you want me to eat it?!?”
My only hope now is that I’ll choke on a piece of liver and that no one at the table is at all efficient with the Heimlich Maneuver. Dinner plates are cleared, cheese plates set, wine carafe refilled, bread replenished and the Epoisses retrieved from the car. I am keenly aware that the car doors have been left open to ‘air out’ the car before their return trip in a few days. With each baby step toward the unavoidable ‘educational’ portion of our lunch I feel my heart rate increasing. It turns out that my heart is right to be afraid of this cheese. What in god’s name is this?
By now dear parents I’m sure that you know the routine. The wine, the bread, the cheese are set before me – yadda yadda yadda. I’d like to say that I was able to soldier through and finish the portion that was served to me. But it came down to basic self-preservation. I’m deathly afraid that I’ll explode in a gaseous cloud that will take the entire Motin Family with me like my guts were a finely timed atomic bomb. But as I lift the Epoisses to my mouth and place the absolutely and terrifyingly stinky cheese in my mouth, my only thought was that the headline of the next day’s paper would *read. “Brave American Dead in Suspicious Fromage Scandal”
All I’m certain of before I pass out is that my obituary will be understood by anyone who has survived this particularly French offense. I seriously think that the US needs to reconsider its status of Ally with these black-hearted people.
*Puante Scale: Where’s my passport?
After all of this … my French family and friends said laughingly that they didn’t understand what the big deal was. It’s not like they brought the illegal and highly coveted maggot cheese from Corsica. My outside voice says, “God bless you my good friends”. My inside voice is screaming, “What the hell!?!?!? A cheese made by maggots!?!? You’ve got to be kidding me!!! Take Corsica off my places to visit”.