Size / / /

A Cheese Map Of France, Part II: "An Ambassador For Its Homeland." In Which I Receive A Treasure Map; The Alps Reconsidered As Cheese; French History As Viewed Through The Lens Of Neufch'tel.

As you may remember from last month's column, the current focus of my interest is cheese, and the relationship between cheese and maps in the curious country known as France. When we left off I had been shopping for aged Gouda in the Covered Market of Wazemmes, and indulging in a savory flight of fancy regarding the qualities of well-aged Mimolette and my own descent into cheese fussiness.

So: Back to that luminous, mottled morning in the Marché Couvert. Under the bright white lights of the central hall, the fromager lifted a heavy wheel of Gouda, set it carefully below the wire blade, and leaned down with all his weight on both braced hands; his big Flemish stomach and ginger mustache trembled. The wire went down, and the fromager lifted my slender wedge of cheese as delicately as if it had been an egg, weighed it on the scale, wrapped it in a sheet of waxed butcher's paper, taped shut the package, and handed it to me.

I paid for it with two gold-edged two-euro coins from my blue coinpurse—my cheese was only a slender sliver, but you pay for quality—and thanked the fromager. He was relaxed today; the corners of his mustache twitch up slightly, and his chin dropped in a nod of acknowledgement. I slipped the cheese into my knapsack and made my way out of the Market.

As I left I was not thinking, particularly, about the cheese, and certainly not about anything associated with it—certainly not its wrapping. I needed all my concentration in order not to bump into anyone in the aisles of the Market. Usually when I came to the Marché de Wazemmes, I brought nothing but my knapsack; I would arrive on the bright orange bicycle I rented by the month from the Catholic University and carry my groceries in its wire basket or on my back as I pedaled home. This gave me an advantage in mobility over most shoppers at the Covered Market, who, even if they didn't have children in tow, were usually pushing the wheeled cloth-and-wire buggies that in France are called caddies (pronounced kah-DEE, even for the plural). They are the sort of thing I associate in the United States with ladies like my elderly aunties, who push them wobblingly to the corner stores down the sidewalks of New York City. For some reason all the caddies in Lille are plaid, green or blue simulated tartan. You might think yourself lost in a city of particularly dour Scotsmen. At any rate, it makes it a little hard to maneuver through marketplaces. One has little mental energy left for speculation.

At the gate of the market, I found my bicycle, pedaled home, put the cheese into the refrigerator, and went off to teach my afternoon classes at the university. It was not until that evening, when I took the Gouda out of the refrigerator to prepare the evening meal, that I noticed that the butcher paper wrapped around it was printed with an image, green on white. I opened it out and studied it. It was a map of France.

I am going to describe the map to you, so that you can try to imagine what I'm talking about. The paper is ordinary white waxed stuff, smelling of cheese, with the map printed on the dull side. It's an image of the familiar national outline: there is the hexagon of France, with its edges traced in a heavy green line—the coastline and borders all more or less accurately drawn. Inside its borders, however, there are no dots representing cities, nor the names of rivers or regions or geographical features. There might as well be no cities. Unlike virtually every other map of France I've ever seen, Paris doesn't appear at all.

Instead, the map renders France in cheese. The way it does this is by showing pictures of various kinds of cheeses, in their round wheels or their little square boxes or whatever, with the name written in small elegant script above or below: for example, "Cancoillotte," or "Chabichou," or "Crottin de Chavignol." The longer I studied it, the more intriguing I found it in terms of what gets left out and what's there to replace it. For example, if you wanted to find Normandy on the map, you wouldn't find the region's name, nor the cities of Rouen or Caen that anchor it. What you will find is the words "Neufch'tel," "Livarot," "Port-Salut," "Pont l'Evêque," and "Camembert"—each illustrated by a picture. Want to find Strasbourg, the eastern capital of Alsace-Lorraine, home of bread, bicycles, and a beautiful cathedral? The cheese map won't tell you where it is, but it will tell you where to find a much smaller and more cheese-producing city nearby: Munster.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is the way that the this map has done away with France's mountains. The Pyrenees, the Alps, and the high stony Massif Central, which usually loom so tall on a topographical map of the country, have here disappeared into the flat, white undifferentiation of the butcher paper. And yet . . . wait! No, they're still there: it's just that instead of being marked with the color brown, or with big white V's like a child draws hilltops, the mountain ranges are marked with images of massive cheese. In the southwest, where the Pyrenees should draw the border between France and Spain, sits a massive round of "Pyrenées pur brébis" (Basque mountain cheese made with ewe's milk, delicious stuff). To the east, where the French Massif Central looms over south central France, is a barrel-shaped hunk of the region's Cantal specialty, and on the country's eastern edge where the Alps slice France away from Switzerland and Italy, sits a truly gigantic wheel of "Emmenthal français"—so called to distinguish it from the stuff produced on the other side of the border, and recognizable as what we call Swiss cheese because, charmingly, of its holes. These three kinds of cheese are represented as being much larger than any of the others; I honestly don't know if they come in wheels that are gigantic in comparison to the other cheese of France, but I cannot help wondering if the mapmaker drew them that way because he was thinking about it, consciously, in those terms: that he was replacing mountains.

The cheese map is so wonderfully simple that it doesn't even show anything beyond the borders of France. Outside the green hexagon, nothing exists. To the northwest, right in the middle of where the English Channel would be, is written in big letters the word "BEURRE," and on the other side Belgium has been eliminated to make way for "OEUFS." Floating off the Atlantic coast to the west and displacing Switzerland in the east are printed the shop hours, and down south, the Iberian peninsula and Mediterranean Sea have been eliminated to make room for a telephone number. Smack over the whole thing, about where you would ordinarily expect to find the British Isles and, if lucky, the western fringe of Scandinavia, is written in big black letters LA CAVE AUX FROMAGES.

What is one to make of this vanished Europe, a France that has lost all its neighbors? A critic might look at it and say: this is a perfect illustration of the stereotype of the French as isolationist. He or she might say that only a chauvinist would produce such a map, obsessing about a single tiny detail of life inside his own hexagon, and eliminating anything that lies beyond the borders. To me, it strikes me more as an example of work produced by tender and devoted love. Don't you have to love something deeply in order to catalog it? If there is no country beyond the border, that seems more likely to me to indicate that the conceiver of the cheese-map just doesn't know how cheese is distributed in Germany or Spain—or, more to the point, that it doesn't matter.

I find this map intriguingly metonymic, in the way that all maps are, showing only a single aspect of the regions it represents in a way that stands in for the whole. Some maps, after all, show only the names of major cities, or a region's political affiliation, or the height of the ground, or the dialects spoken in a place, or the weather patterns that obtain. So if this one only shows cheese—forgetting politics, borders, highways, even the name of its own capital—well, then, what does that mean? You might talk about chauvinism, or ridiculous obsession; but then you might also, more usefully, I think, talk about the straight-ahead fact of cultural difference. Personally, I've been trying to imagine a cheese map of the United States, and I've been having some trouble . . . in fact, I've been finding it hard to imagine the U.S. laid out in a food map at all. But what the fromager's map tells me is that, when it comes to France, it is, in fact, perfectly possible to represent it in cheese. Cheese as earth, cheese as region, cheese as geography. And, if that strikes the American mind as hilarious—and I don't know about you, but it does sort of seem that way to me—then here's what may be most interesting of all: to the French, it's not particularly funny. It's simply, plainly, real.

What does that mean—the fact that French thought, or at least French mapmaking, possesses this option for metonymy that we Americans don't? Is that what we mean when we talk about national differences? Is that what we mean when we talk about culture?

What would be sufficient material evidence to demonstrate that the French, as a culture, think differently than we do about cheese? If the existence of the fromager is not itself enough, or the three-times-expanded dairy aisle, perhaps publications could count: the documentary evidence of printed matter. In the Marché Couvert de Wazemmes, the sellers of cheese and meat leave flyers and brochures lying around their stalls, meant to improve the shoppers' knowledge about and understanding of cheese. I liked to pick these up when I went shopping, and read them in my spare time. They were very educational, and as good as guidebooks in their way. One was about the cheeses of the French Alps région of Savoie, or Savoy. Its cover showed a Holstein standing in a bright field against a clear sky, and it was filled with tidbits about things tourists can visit in the region as well as recipes for using its cheese. Another cover showed yellow raclette cheese melting in a grill and invited the reader to "Spend the winter the way the Swiss do!"—that is, eating fondue. A third presented Passendaele, a wheel-shaped Belgian surrounded by a golden glow, and offered recipes in French and Dutch on facing pages, while a fourth featured the well-known local cheese made at the Mont des Cats, near Lille, where the monks have largely been supporting their monastery on the proceeds from their grocery shop-cum-tourist boutique since 1826.

It turns out that you can learn a lot about a region from a pamphlet about cheese. In the brochure on Savoie, for instance, I learned that the cheeses of the region are made from the milk of cows that feed on the grass of aromatic Alpine meadows; that there is a legal distinction between Beaufort cheese made from the milk of cows grazing in fields at over 1,500 meters' altitude, and those grazing below; that the region of Savoie was at one time attached to the Kingdom of Sardinia; and that while you are visiting Savoie you ought to be sure to see both the Tours Saint-Jacques—which are natural limestone formations in the Massif des Bauges Regional Park, named after a 14th-century Templar priory—and a giant Alexander Calder sculpture located near Passy on Highway A40. Who knew? I have never known so much about Savoie before.

If the cheese pamphlets are also tourism brochures, then it should come as no surprise that one booklet has turned out to be a particular favorite: sort of an anthology of the Greatest Hits of French Cheese—a cheese atlas, if you will. It is about sixty pages long, and is called, in the exhortative tone common to such cheese-oriented literature, "Prenez la Route des Fromages"—"Follow the Road of Cheese!" It is published by the Conseil National des Appellations d'Origine Laitières, which you might think of as one of the many arms of the French Dairy Council, and its putative purpose is to explain to the reader the "Appellation d'Origine Protégée," a tag assigned by the European Union to confer upon food products the guarantee of that elusive trait, authenticity. Authenticity in their food is very important to the French—somewhat the same way that authenticity is important to voyagers when they travel—so I am going to spend a little time explaining this. I want to start by translating for you the first page of the booklet, but first I need to make a note about the translation: no matter how many times I try to smooth it, it comes out sounding hilariously pompous. I would like to say this is a failing in me, and does not exist in the original French, but in fact this would be a lie.

Here is how the booklet starts:

"The nations of Europe possess a great richness in the diversity of their food products. When a product attains a reputation that extends beyond its national borders—as is the case with, for instance, the dairy products of France—they may find themselves facing, upon the market, imitators that usurp their name. This disloyal competition leads the shopper down the paths of error, and disheartens its producers.

"That is why, in 1992, the European Union created a system to certify and protect food and agricultural products. This system includes the naming device know as the Appellation d'Origine Protégée, or AOP ('Protected Designation of Origin'). This system defends the names and reputations of products whose sources, processing and production fulfill the criteria necessary to obtain the parallel French quality certification, the Appellation d'Origine Controllée (AOC, or 'Certified Designation of Origin')."

What this slightly confusing explanation boils down to is this: in order to identify a food that is "authentically" produced, in the region and according to the methods traditionally associated with its manufacture, the French have marked it out with a label called "AOC," which is the Agriculture Ministry's guarantee that the food comes from where it says it does. The French have always been careful about this—apparently, the first cheese label dates back to the 15th century, when "Roquefort was regulated by a parliamentary decree"—and the modern legal version was established in 1919. Since the European Union came along a few years ago and started giving out its own certifications to all things European (certification being, to the casual observer, one of the continent's favorite pastimes), it has created its own stamp—called, in French, the AOP—which functions in the same way as the AOC and can be applied to food products from all over Europe.

As you can see, the Europeans seem to view understanding their food as a very serious matter. It is enough to give one the feeling that if one wants to understand the culture, or, if I dare to go so far, the people of France, one really ought to understand these issues. For this reason, if no other, I have spent a lot of time reading this brochure.

In its first few pages, Prenez la Route des Fromages! yields the interesting information that of the 150 "European cheeses, butters and creams" that currently merit the honor of an E.U. AOP stamp, not less than 46 are French. It then goes on, in the spirit of any good tourist guide or educational work, to encourage you to "discover these cheeses at your local shops or in the course of your travels," and, above all, not to "hesitate to ask the advice of your fromager." That last's a lovely touch, I think. Though, in my life as an American, I have often been directed to ask the opinion of my pharmacist, doctor, or legal counsel, I cannot remember the last time I was told to seek the advice of my cheesemonger.

Later, Prenez la Route des Fromages! goes on to offer some interesting statistics about French AOP cheese. We discover, for instance, the percentage produced with cow's milk (86%, as opposed to 3% made from goat's milk and 11% from the ewe); the most widely exported (Comté and Roquefort); the most popular within France (Comté, which is consumed at a somewhat alarming 43,555 tons per year). There follows a breakdown of cheeses "par famille," in a ranking of most to least delicate—the order, by the way, in which you are advised to eat them when faced with a cheese plate—in an elaborate taxonomy of cheese. I had to look online for translations of such phrases as "les p'tes molles à croûtes fleuries" (the most delicate kind) and "les p'tes pressées cuites" (the least), for this is as technical as any sort of science. Research revealed that the latter category translates to "pressed, heated cheeses," while the former, which includes such renowned luminaries as Brie, Camembert, and Neufch'tel, turns out to mean to "soft cheese with surface moulds." This might be considered an example of the way that everything sounds better in French.

How much one can learn about the culture and history of any given part of France, in reading about its cheese! Regarding Normandy, for instance, one discovers that the cheese known as Pont l'Evêque is mentioned as early as 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris, in the lines of the Roman de la Rose; that Camembert was perfected in 1791 by a farm woman named Marie Harel, on the advice of a "refractory priest" who had taken refuge in her home; that Livarot was known in the nineteenth century as "the poor man's meat," and that due to the traditional five rows of cord wrapped around its wheel people sometimes refer to it as "the Colonel"; and that during the Hundred Years' War, young women were said to have offered gifts of heart-shaped Neufch'tel to English soldiers at the New Year to show their love. One furthermore learns that Mont-Saint-Michel is a nice place to visit, and that Isigny crème fraîche makes a very good onion dip.

Flipping further on, to learn, like any good traveller should, about the region I live in—the Nord-Pas-de-Calais—I found out that Maroilles cheese, named after a small commune in the North, must be "not unwrapped, but undressed with care"; that there are important differences between the kind of Brie that comes from Melun and the kind that comes from Meaux, mainly in that Melun is lighter; that Meaux Brie was not only enjoyed by Charlemagne, but was officially crowned "The King of Cheese" at the Congress of Vienna in 1815; and that, although Maroilles is tasty with rye bread, Brie is best consumed in winter, with a nice Beaujolais.

I confess that, as I first sat reading these texts, I found myself amazed. I had not been expecting, certainly, to learn this much. Who would have thought that there was so much we could learn from cheese—all that it can tell us about the history and culture of the region it comes from? And yet, to the French—or, at least, to the Conseil National des Appellations d'Origine Laitières—the resonance is clear. One citation in the early part of the booklet struck me as, perhaps, shedding light on this—and perhaps summing all of it up:

"Beyond the gastronomic pleasure it procures" (wrote the scribe of the Conseil National des Appellations d'Origine Laitières), "beyond the convivialité it engenders, a cheese can be a true lesson in history and geography. A link between the savoir-faire of the men and women of yesterday and the talent of those of today. A cheese is like a wine. Like an olive oil or a vegetable, it preserves, folded in its depths, the specific characteristics of its terroir. Its identity is so strong that the cheese is recognizable through these characteristics alone. Its authenticity is such that it becomes an ambassador for its homeland."

An ambassador for its homeland? How much of this, I found myself wondering, is exaggeration aimed to convince the consumer, and how much of it is sincerely felt, deeply experienced love for—and belief in—cheese?

In next month's follow-up and conclusion, I shall, no doubt, stop short of a drawing a clear conclusion—after all, the point of this kind of investigation is that it's hard to be sure about culture. But I do look forward to offering you some ideas about other ways in which cheese is wound deep into the French heart, in ways as important and as subtle as gardening, school holidays, and the chiming of northern bells.

And I would, as always, be grateful and interested to hear what you have to say.

Susannah Mandel has lived for ten years in Boston, two years in France, and several months in Philadelphia. She hopes never to move back to the suburbs. Her favorite hobbies include stories, sunlight, looking at stuff, and going into detail. Please feel free to tell her interesting things.
Current Issue
15 Apr 2024

Mnemonic skills test positive: inaccurately positive.
pallid growths like toadstools, / and scuttling many-legged things,
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
I want to sink my faces into the hot spring and see which one comes out breathing. I’m hoping it’s mine.
Issue 8 Apr 2024
Issue 1 Apr 2024
Issue 25 Mar 2024
By: Sammy Lê
Art by: Kim Hu
Issue 18 Mar 2024
Strange Horizons
Issue 11 Mar 2024
Issue 4 Mar 2024
Issue 26 Feb 2024
Issue 19 Feb 2024
Issue 12 Feb 2024
Issue 5 Feb 2024
Load More
%d bloggers like this: