Fromage Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The French attitude towards cheese is sort of like the porn industry’s attitude towards sex…no matter how bizarre your tastes are; someone out there is making something for you.

“Oh dear god, this is ridiculous.  MB – please, seriously!”  I have just opened our refrigerator and the smell of cheese has become completely over-whelming.  I am assaulted, almost knocked backwards by the pungent odour.    

“Quoi?”  He replies, as he wanders into the kitchen, unbothered.

“Are you really going to tell me you can’t smell this?”  I say, one hand on the refrigerator door and the other on my hip. 

“Ouais!!!  It smells amazing!”  I can practically see his tongue start to salivate. 

“Okay, I know, honey, but there is cheese from four months ago in there.”

“Ah oui?  Which ones?  They are probably perfect now!”

I can see my point is not getting across. 

“Okay, sweetie”, I say in my nicest voice, the same voice I would use if I were trying to coax a rabid dog away from a bone.  “The cheese is taking up about two-thirds of the fridge.”

“Ouais…”  He replies, nervously.

“We don’t have room for other groceries.”

He remains unphased, apparently a diet consisting entirely of cheese would be completely acceptable for him.

“I really need you to go through all this stuff and figure out which ones we are going to keep and which ones we are going to get rid of…please!” 

He looks like he’s been shot, and suddenly I feel no better than the Nazi officer in Sophie’s Choice.       

He gives me a sullen look, and then slowly begins to pull the cheese out of the refrigerator (it ends up covering the entire counter).  Gingerly, he opens each paper to see what treasure lies within.  There is brie from the market, the over-powering goat cheese that we bought from the farm in the mountains, the St. Felician that is almost completely liquid, the hard, soft, sweet, and bitter blues. The variety of mold is stunning.  I remember a cheese he once gave me that apparently had tiny little maggots in the surface which made it appear as though it were moving, ever so slightly.  Silently, I pray that we haven’t let that remain in the fridge for two months. 

He pulls out one huge round of what was once cheese and is now primarily a science experiment.

“Ah, okay, maybe this one we can get rid of,” he says, looking up at me. 

I stand stock-still and say nothing, not wanting to frighten away this inclination.

“No, what?  Am I crezee (crazy)?”  He looks relieved, as though he has just missed an incredibly close call with death.  “We can use this to make something great!  Maybe tartiflette!”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartiflette)

I think about this for a minute.  I mean, I really do like tartiflette.  Maybe we should go on and keep this cheese but others definitely have to go.

He continues on to the next one.  The mold is so thick I can’t even see the cheese underneath. 

“Oh MB, seriously, this ones gotta go!”

He cuts off one thick side to reveal the clean part of the cheese, and holds it up to my nose.  I almost pass out from the intensity of the smell…at the same time; my mouth starts to water a bit.  Damn you, tastebuds, you traitors!

“Perhaps in a fondue?”  MB looks at me and smiles.  He can sense my weakening resolve.

As we move through the cheese on the counter, a scraping of mold here, and a little trimming there creates the appropriate excuses to keep all the cheese.  One by one, they all end up returning to the refrigerator, only better organized. 

Finally, we come to the last ones.   He finds two little rounds of hard goat cheese (MB’s favorite), they are stuck together, one on top of the other, glued by a layer of dense, black, gooey-looking fungus.     He pulls them apart, and removes the offending fungus, then attempts to plunge a knife into the middle of one of them.  The knife nearly breaks in the process.  He pulls out a sharper knife and through great struggles, finally penetrates the cheese.  He pops a piece into his mouth and I hear a ‘crack’.

“Woah!”  He sticks a finger in his mouth. 

“What?  Is everything okay?  Oh my god, did you chip your tooth?”

“No, ca va.  I thought for a minute, I had though!” 

“Okay, so this one we can get rid of then?”

“Mais no…it is perfect, you want a piece?”

I look at him like he is crazy.  This man wants me to eat something that he almost cracked a tooth on. 

“Well, maybe just a little one.”

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

“So are all French as pretentious and snotty as they seem?”  My friend asks me this question as we walk down the street, heading to lunch.  I have returned to the U.S. for a weeklong visit while MB is in the Philippines once again. 

“No, its just a different culture,” I reply.  “They are more reserved than we are, and I think, we tend to perceive that as snobbery.”  During my visit home, I am peppered with questions on this topic.  “Are they all rude?”  “Has everyone been mean to you?”  “Do they hate Americans?” (“Do they really love Jerry Lewis?”)*  

While I am not so sure about my answer, my friend seems completely satisfied.  Of course she was; she is a dog.   A cat would never have asked the question in the first place. 

In the film “Up”, there is a scene where the travelers meet a dog who can talk.  One of the first things that he says is, “I’ve just met you and I love you already” while he jumps up and down excitedly.   

The dog is clearly an American. 

The French, on the other hand, are more nonchalant, more aloof, more likely to have the cat-like attitude.  “Ah, you feed me and what, I am supposed to be grateful?  Pfff…I will piss on your shoes.”    

The stereotypes about French rudeness and snobbery abound.  There have been countless books written by English-speaking travelers that approach the subject (A Year in the Merde, A Year in Provence, Almost French, etc).  The reality, however, is just that we are different.  While an American waiter will needlessly check on you, “are you okay?  Is everything just so great?  Can I get you anything, anything at all?  Perhaps a spare kidney, a goose that lays golden eggs?”  A French waiter will take your order and bring you your food and then leave you to enjoy it…maybe he will do this nicely, maybe with contempt.  Both methods have their values; its nice not to have to flag a waiter down and then have him roll his eyes at you just to get a water refill.  On the other hand, what is more annoying than an overly cheerful waiter interrupting your conversation every ten minutes?  “Hi, I’m Tammy, and we are going to have a great lunch today!”

When you walk into a party in France; it is not unlikely that no one will speak to you.  I went to one, in which, even the host didn’t bother to welcome me or offer me a drink.  But you can’t take it personally; these are cats, people!  Do you expect a cat to immediately jump in your lap and cuddle you…not often.  When a stranger walks into an American party; they are practically assaulted with friendliness, drinks and food shoved in their face, questions asked abundantly, speedy and informal introductions given immediately.  “Come on, play with us!  We are having so much fun!”  Dogs. 

So really, I don’t think its necessarily that the French are snobs; they are just cats.  They are more reserved and less likely to maul you with affability.  And while I will always be a dog person, cats are starting to grow on me. 

*Contrary to popular American belief, I have seen no evidence of an abiding love for Jerry Lewis in France (though I have noticed some links in the sense of humor)