A Cheese Map Of France, Part III: In Which Culinary Cartography Leads To Ruminations on Small Towns, Romantic Nostalgia, The Making of and Standing On Bridges, A Hedgerow Crown, Contemporary Hagiography, and Crossroads All Over Again.
In the two previous columns, I have described the role that cheese came to play in my life in Lille. I also mentioned the relationship between maps and the marketing of food: how people shopping in a supermarket at the end of the day fill their baskets with regional delicacies, like butter from Brittany or salt harvested from the Mediterranean coasts, which tend to come in packages showing exactly where, in the French hexagon, their origins lie. These disparate trends came together one winter afternoon at the Covered Market of Wazemmes, when a red-mustached cheesemonger wrapped my sliver of aged Gouda in a sheet of waxed paper which, when unfolded later, turned out to be nothing less than a cheese map of France. There are no oceans represented on the map, no mountains, no major cities: only the pictures and the names, placed over their points of origin, of various important kinds of cheese.
This cheese map is quite an artifact. No matter how many times I look at it, it keeps reversing my expectations. What kind of map is this? It does not show bordering countries, it does not show river networks, and, strangest to my mind, it does not even show cities. Paris is not on the cheese map. I am not sure I have ever before seen a map of France that did not show Paris. Have you?
On most existing maps of the country, Paris is the unquestioned heart of France, and the brain as well. All roads run toward it: transit lines, shipping routes, patterns of manufacturing and of immigration. But the cheese map doesn't care. Here, the order of things is reversed, the world turned upside down. When you think about it, a city is actually a terrible place to produce cheese. Where would you put the cows? Paris and the Île-de-France are far too cluttered up, stinky with the waste of manufacturing and the fumes of cars, crowded with all the politicians and artists and financiers. It's not a good place for meadows and milking, so on the cheese map—despite the feeling of heresy it engenders—Paris is simply ignored.
As are Marseille, and Lyon, and Lille: all the great cities are wiped off the map. In their place, other, smaller centers of civilization take prominent place. There's Roquefort, for example, and Munster, and Port-Salut, and Saint-Nectaire, and Pont-l'Évêque. These are all towns with populations under 5,000 souls: mere flyspecks on any standard atlas. But they are renowned for their cheese, and so, on the cheese map, they become grand.
Consider Pont-l'Évêque, for example. Pont-l'Évêque is a tiny town in eastern Normandy—population approximately 4,100, according to the Internet—but by coincidence I have actually been there, once upon a time. Years ago, before I had ever before set foot in France, I went to Normandy on a one-week voyage with my friend Sally, who was three months pregnant and longing for an adventure. Sally's American grandfather had been a minor Impressionist painter in Monet's circle and had left the family a falling-down farmhouse in Normandy. (This is the kind of thing you read about happening to other people, but for Sally's family it was actually true, although the upkeep on the house was less than fairy-tale-like).
We rented a car, and for a week we drove around the rainy Normandy highways, looking at the scenery. This consisted mostly of cows and green fields and sunlight filtering through grim clouds, but it added up to a surprisingly beautiful week, although certainly very damp. The farmhouse was far away from everything, and was reached by traveling down local roads and past wooden gates and along long narrow unpaved incredibly muddy ruts that threatened, each evening we drove back, to sink the car. It was surrounded by green slopes and apple trees, barbed-wire fencing, and the suspicious stares of the neighbors' cows and the occasional goat. The nights were pitch black and you could see all the stars.
We were pretty close to being in the middle of nowhere. The nearest big town was Lisieux, about fifteen miles, or 23 kilometers, away. Lisieux is mostly famous for having produced a saint named Thérèse, nicknamed the Little Flower, who died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four and to whom the city has erected a huge, toothpaste-white neo-Gothic basilica. It looms over the city like an elephant's back, and at night it fluoresces faintly in the floodlights.
Smaller, but closer to the farmhouse, was the little town of Pont-l'Évêque. It was only six kilometers away, and we drove there when we wanted to try to find groceries at the general store. What I remember about Pont-l'Évêque was how tiny it was, that the Post Office was closed after three P.M., and that we had trouble finding someplace to buy the tape we needed to seal up a package. Most clearly, I remember standing on the bridge over the river Touques—Pont-l'Évêque means Bishopsbridge, and, though it has no cathedral, there is in fact a sufficiency of bridges—and looking down into the water, which had narrowed to a trickle under the chilly grey October sky. Brown leaves floated on the water; a few leaves had fallen in my hair. I felt gloomy, and the dull sky over the train-station parking lot and closed bank offices made me feel isolated and depressed. I am certain that I was thinking, at that moment, that I would rather be in Paris, or at least in some historic regional capital with lots of nice shops and maybe a cathedral or two.
All in all Pont-l'Évêque was a glum place, unredeemed even by the eerie sense of rural silence that made the farmhouse an interesting place to wake up. Sally and I both felt it. We spent most of our time making trips in the car to see nearby places of interest, like Caen or Rouen (historic regional capitals both, with nice shops and cathedrals), which served to point up the contrast. Sally was inclined to be more forgiving than I was, pointing out that Normandy, like nearly any Northern country, tends to be much more welcoming in summer than in the fall. Whether Pont-l'Évêque would have been lovely in summer, I doubted but couldn't be sure.
It was also Sally who let me know that in Pont-l'Évêque they made cheese. I had never heard of it, but it was hard to pass any of the few shop-windows in town without seeing an advertisement. We bought a bit in its trademark wooden box and took it back to share it in the farmhouse kitchen. Sally liked it better than I did; I have never been really up to the challenge of France's softer, stronger cheese. I do remember the surprise I felt, however, when I saw the picture printed on the box's lid. Stamped on the sweet-smelling wood was a red-ink image of Pont-l'Évêque: there was the little main street we had stood on, and the bridge over the river—all looking timeless, and beautiful in their way. Captured in red print for the top of a box of cheese, it all looked pretty and simple and like the kind of place you'd want to visit, spend time and eat cheese in. When I looked at it I remembered the dull sky over the river, and wondered where the dead leaves were.
Now the French, like Americans, have complicated and conflicting feelings about small-town life, and about the distance between life in the country and life in the city. On the one hand, Parisian horror of the cultural backwardness of life outside the capital can be documented from, at the very latest, 1856. That is the year in which Flaubert's Madame Bovary depicted life in a fictional village near Rouen—the biggest city in eastern Normandy (and, incidentally, less than an hour's drive from Pont-l'Évêque on the A13)—as a condemnation to a slow death by boredom. Flaubert's view was perhaps unusually strong, but Parisians still dismissively refer to any place outside the capital as "en province"—literally, "in the provinces." It's not only the Parisians who think so, either; small towns continue to dwindle in numbers as young people gravitate toward universities and jobs in Paris, or in France's other boomtowns—Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse— scattered across the South. The country continues to pursue the policy of "decentralization" initiated back in the 1950s, whose goal was to get companies to establish headquarters away from Paris in order to help renew the areas where, département by département, great swathes across the south and west of France were gradually losing their populations to urban migration. The most dramatic example is the département La Creuse, near the dead center of France, where the population has dropped by twenty-five percent since the 1960s. In this context the process is called simply désertification.
In some ways, of course, village life has changed considerably from the way it was in Flaubert's time. The towns look similar—even eerily so—with their brick gables or their tiled red roofs, their town squares, their sleepy bars and cafes, their market days and their carefully-observed ancient celebrations that, once or twice a year, fill the winding streets between the town hall and the church with costumes, paintings of the saints, curious effigies, and hymns. But today the autoroutes and the TGV high-speed train link France to itself. The voyage from Rouen to Paris now takes under two hours, much reduced from Madame Bovary's time. TV, radio, cell phones, and the Internet link even the most isolated towns and regions with the rest of the country. And, it seems, every other small town or isolated farm puts up welcome signs and establishes a website to pull in city tourists during the summer.
Small-town life is not what it used to be, for sure. And yet . . . the young people continue to leave their hometowns, and the boom cities continue to boom, and housing developments spring up around the edges of the major industry hubs while the price of real estate in Paris continues to skyrocket, and, somewhere in the middle of France, small villages one by one find themselves needing to close up their schools and give in.
What does all of this have to do with food advertising, tourist guides like La Route des Fromages, and the packaging of Pont-l'Évêque cheese? Thinking about this sort of advertising propaganda, I wonder if, in part, this zealous valorization of little towns and agrarian life is linked to an increasing French nostalgia for a "way of life" that seems to be on the way to obsolescence. Considering that timeless snapshot of Pont-l'Évêque, might not the cheese map represent an idea of a former sense of values now turned inside out: a map on which the great industrial centers do not exist—on which Paris, Marseille, Lyon are erased—but where the tiny towns, the agricultural producers, stand large and proud? This would then make them icons of a nostalgic France that only exists in memory; and the map the image of France not as it is but as it might be, somewhere in history, imagination and dream: a place in which the very towns that, in the real world, are slowly being drained of their children can stand large and proud. A France of memory, in which small agricultural villages defy the modern world's changes to live timelessly on forever.
Of course, one might argue that the French have been valorizing their regions, and their regions' cheeses, since long before the twentieth century brought the threats of urbanization and désertification. Remember that fifteenth-century elegy to Roquefort? And yet—I don't know—by the mid-nineteenth century, Madame Bovary was dying of ennui in Yonville.
When I think of the grey, silent hours I passed in Pont-l'Évêque, I can't help thinking about other small towns like it: with their identical steeples and footbridges, but much worshipped—nearly beatified!—cheeses. I wonder if the glorification of these isolated towns, and their flagship foods, have their roots in some sort of mental combat aimed at counteracting the all-too-frequent dullness of these places—the places not as they are idealized in ads, but as they actually are. It is certain that many people find pleasures in living in tiny towns; but it is also sure that no one escapes the particular sort of small-town moment that disturbed me that fall, when there's nothing much stirring but the dull leaves whipping under the bridge between the river and the sky, every shop is closed, and you feel like you'd rather be anywhere else.
Perhaps the fame of a cheese helps people to feel that it is better to be living here than to live anywhere else—here, and in the other towns with similar claims to fame. Perhaps it also serves to differentiate one small town from another, in the minds of outsiders as well as for the villagers. In this sense, maybe a famous cheese serves the same purpose as the town football team, the annual procession for the obscure local saint, or the town hall with its cracked bell, which is defended as being significantly different from any other bell around. Perhaps it is all a matter of differentiation, of specificity, of giving a place something to represent it to the outside world: a place on the map.
I can't help wanting to think about this—all of this, the shopping and the maps and the cheese and the rest of it—in the context of something else I learned in Lille. This fact, which has more to do with both maps and cheese than it might at first seem, is that the middle-class French are great people for traveling. They tend to leave home whenever possible—on the weekends, on national holidays, on the days in between national holidays and the weekend. (Two days is not enough to travel, but four days is, and so a four-day break will be pursued whenever possible; thus, if a national holiday falls on, say, a Thursday, it is pretty well understood that no one will be at work on Friday. This practice is referred to as "making the bridge," "faire le pont," and is so common that all sensible persons try to wrap up indispensable business no later than Wednesday morning.) The French also like to travel during school holidays, and the five weeks' summer vacation to which every worker is entitled. To manage the mass evacuations that ensue, school vacations have staggered start and end dates, to ensure that the nation's children are not all let loose at once, and there is an official Congestion Alert scale—green, orange, or red—with which the radio and TV news let you know on which dates the roads leading out of Paris are expected to be clogged with cars, or the highways leading south to Provence and the Côte d'Azur to become a stifling, honking, unmoving traffic hell.
And yet, and I can't help finding this interesting, the French only really like to travel in France. According to statistics, the French trail behind all other nations of Western Europe in terms of going abroad: fewer than fifteen percent leave the country on holiday in any given year, in contrast to the passionate outflow of their counterparts in Germany, the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom. Nor is it for lack of means, since millions cross the country each year to summer on the Brittany coast or the topless beaches near Nice. An article I read on the subject, I recall, suggested a number of reasons why the French prefer to stay in France. One had to do with language: the northern European educational systems turn out a far higher rate of comfortable polyglots than those of the "Latin" countries, and most French speakers feel uneasy in English, the de facto language of tourism and business. Another suggestion (refreshingly simple, I must admit) was that the French are simply too snobby to leave home.
However, the idea that seemed most convincing to me was this: French vacationers love their country so much that they don't feel the need to go elsewhere. Now this does have a certain ring of chauvinism, I admit, but much depends on how you look at things. It's true that France is one of the most geographically diverse countries on the continent. Its territory is amply stocked with Alpine skiing, Celtic shorelines, Flemish flatlands, and Mediterranean sand: mountains, rivers, woodlands, meadows, palm trees, vineyards, the sea. A vast array of touristic experiences can be had without stepping beyond the borders. More to the point, it's important to understand that something in the French mindset, or at least in the contours of the national tourism campaigns, seems to encourage the practice of exploring France; of collecting experiences, as it were. More times than I can count, I have heard my students and colleagues voice a tremendous enthusiasm to get away to, return to, or explore for the first time another part of the country. This is not, I think, quite so common in the United States. There are relatively few Americans who develop a bug for travel within their own nation. One thinks of the stereotypical retired couple who suddenly pull up stakes and start trawling the nation's trailer parks in their RV; and, like many people, I had a school friend who tried with embarrassment to conceal her parents' interest in collecting a magnet from each state. But this isn't a feeling that is really shared by the majority of the people, and, even though it's hard to know whether things would be different if we Americans all had five weeks' annual vacation and social and economic incentives to spend it exploring the country, it seems improbable that we'd muster the same kind of interest in exploring the corners of our country that the French do.
There seems to be some element in the middle-class French education, maybe embedded in the sense of républicanisme or in the way that the studies of history and geography are so intimately intertwined, that leaves many a French person with the feeling that the world as contained in France—its varieties of scenery and skies, its flora and fauna, its range of architecture and accents and battle sites and flavors of regional delicacies—is an infinitely rich and expansive one. It will reward exploration, educate and delight, and deepen cultural and sensual knowledge at the same time. The more you get to see of the country, the more you taste and learn, the more accomplished, civilized, interesting, and relaxed you will become. This is a similar feeling to the one many people have about world travel, really, only it's localized and contained to the world within the borders of the nation. I suppose that one word to use for this would be chauvinism. But another way of looking at it is that the French just really, really love their country.
In this sense, I think, traveling represents a national pastime for the French. But it's one peculiarly tied to patriotism and the love of country—of country as defined by land, its geography and earth and the produce it produces, as much as by its history or political boundaries. This has been making me think—and bear with me here—of the English, and their own national obsession with gardening.
Now, although the French do not at all like being compared with the English, and tend to reject any such simile out of hand, I still think there is a closer resonance here than anything I can find in American culture. The English fondness for plants, like the French interest in cheese and wine, may have been blown up by outsiders into a full-scale national stereotype, but it is rooted in something heartfelt and genuine, and I think there's something important there if we dig for it a little.
The use of the garden as a symbol for England is known to any second-year student of English literature. It can signify both patriotism and a love of, and closeness to, the land. It is a steady theme through centuries of poetry and literature, and crops up in many of the verses the English themselves have most taken to heart, from Shakespeare to Kipling, right up through the nostalgic war poetry of Rupert Brooke or John McCrae's Flanders poppies. Sometimes the garden is tame and enclosed, sometimes tangly and a little bit out of hand. But the deep-rooted idea is the same.
Every now and then, while visiting England, or while deep in the works of English writers, I've come across something that seemed to shore up the stereotype: the dozens of gardening magazines on sale in a London bookshop, or the wall-length shelves in the library of the British Cultural Centre in Lille groaning under the weight of texts on "England's Cosiest Gardens." Most recently, I found a garden in a place hardly expected: in the fortified display-hall where the Crown Jewels are displayed, in the heart of the Tower of London, that most touristed of English historical sites. Displayed among the ancient coronets was a newish-looking tiara that, according to the labels, had been forged to celebrate England at the millennium. The design was based on the winning entry of a nationwide competition. The successful entry, submitted by a schoolgirl, represented the interior of an English hedgerow—those strips of tangled shrubs that criss-cross Britain's countryside, dividing one farmer's field from another and preventing the sheep from straying. It turns out that hedgerows have a fiercely important place in England's history, politics, and self-image: in most parts of the country they are protected by regional law, and some of them are documented to be over a thousand years old. In the hedgerow crown, gold or silver had been forged and twisted to represent the stalks and leaves of the hedgerow plants; tiny animals and insects, blossoms and berries, were set in gems. Oak, ash, hawthorn and elder, dog roses, blackberries, bluebells and hedgehogs: this was the image selected for immortalization, to be shown among the scepters—the spirit of England, past and present. Not war or industry, not the modern face of modern London, but the almost-eternal leaves and flowers; the human-tamed earth, its dense green world, and the tiny creatures sniffing around the roots.
Is there a relationship between the passion for the garden and the passion for domestic traveling? Between the love of the earth and the love of one's local fromager? The thousand-year-old hawthorn bush and the frozen cheese-box image of a tiny town? The schoolgirl's sketch of the hedgerow crown and the ancient, baroque, stylized "coronation" of a national King of Cheese?
This brings me back to the image of all those drawn-faced, tired urban Lillois shopping after work in the Carrefour for delicacies from all over the Hexagon. I can see them, under the fluorescent glare, as they fill their carts with regional delicacies from far away. I can see them wrapping their hands around a delicate carton with a map traced on it—of some distant region in the Republic, perhaps the place the shopper himself was born—and in the window of darkness between work and a late supper, collecting the odors and flavors of distant but familiar earths, maneuvering in an exercise in grocery-store cartography that mirrors, in an intriguing way, the map collected by a habitual vacationer who puts together the visited country like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It makes me think again of the Carrefour, in a heavy-handed but oddly apt metaphor, turning for a moment into what its name suggests: a crossroads in French, an intersection for the entire country, miniaturized and metonymized in flavors, odors, and maps.
And it brings me back to the cheese map. For an image designed primarily to reflect the thinking, and sell the fruits, of a cheesemonger, it's a peculiarly apt symbolic representation of this country. It seems to work well for a place so dedicated to investing its regions, its emptying farmlands and little towns, with an individual personality; and for a culture that roots its sense of pride, of cultural identity, even of regional history, so deeply in the produce of its land. For the French, to love cheese, perhaps, is to love the small town it comes from; in the same way that to love the produce of a region is to know the region, in a deep, thorough, and humble way. It is to know its local names and accents, and—importantly, as much as any gardener—to know its earth, its grass, the smell of its wind. It's to know both the culture of the land, and the land itself. And that, I think, is why the cheese map goes beyond being entertaining to become an insistently and unexpectedly meaningful symbol. Not only do these tiny pictures and names embody the history of a place, its naming patterns and nearby small towns —that is, not only do they represent, on the map, the visible remains of an agricultural way of life increasingly eclipsed on the "real" economic atlases—but they can also, in a way that seems accidental but somehow comes out real and meaningful, stand in for mountains and cities and lakes. A cheese map doesn't need to show you valleys or mountains, because the cheese is the land. That's a funny thing to say, but it's also true. Earth, grass, and wind; it's a connection as deep as any a gardener has with his plot of earth, or any traveler with the map of the places he's been.
The existence of nostalgia—of love for the countryside, either as it really exists or as it has been idealized to be—is no news. Nor is it a surprise to anyone that, in an increasingly urbanized and technology-driven world, it's heavily on the rise. Still, the cheese map seems particularly meaningful to me because it makes the workings of nostalgia so explicit. There's nothing like symbolic cartography for laying bare the sentimental structure of a nation's heart. And the symbols in question are also laden with real meaning: it's no surprise that the French like their dairy products, either, but the breadth of ways in which the icons are deployed tells us something deeply interesting, I think, about the place they hold in this culture.
There's also something here that seems to shed light on certain instances of French iconography, things that seem otherwise meaningless or uninterpretable. On the cover of Prenez la route des fromages!—my shopper's guidebook to French cheese tourism—the reader is greeted with a most unforgettable image: an anyplace-French small town, nestled among pasturelands below a summer-blue sky. The strange part? Every single architecture element has been transformed into cheese. The houses are big square cubes, the steeple of the church is a waxy wedge. Squat cheese rounds even do haybale service in the fields. Inside, you can compare it with the original picture and appreciate the Photoshopped details. The bizarre scale alteration lends a sense of the surreal, suggesting some unappreciated Magritte toiling away in the graphic-design department of some regional office. And the strangest thing of all is that the cheese-town is hardly less generic than the brick-and-stone original. Both are carefully generic anyplace villages; and yet by the same token, both are somehow defiantly and definitely French, as the large labeling under the cover picture tells you. "Des fromages faits ici," it declares, "et pas autrement!": "Cheese made here, and nowhere else!"
Lately, I've begun to have even stranger thoughts. They have come to me while reading about the precision and paperwork which goes into determining which fromage gets an "Appellation d'Origine Controllée"; while recalling the rhetoric and emotionalism that goes into describing French cheeses; and while contemplating such remarkable artifacts as the cheese map itself. Perhaps it would not have occurred to me if I were not also studying the history of the country, closely tied to religion and politics as it is. But here it is: given the worshipful tone often adopted when talking about cheese, it's hard not to notice that certain writing about cheese and cheese tourism have taken on a flavor of hagiography. Hagiography—the study of saints' lives—has a long history here. Before the Renaissance, before the Revolution, France was as Catholic a country as any in Europe: ruled by the Church, with power tensely balanced between the clergy and the titular feudal lords. Local economies were driven by great monastery churches and cathedrals that sparred with each other over which could draw pilgrims with the most exotic relics and saintly bones. Devout citizens collected pilgrimage tokens from the cathedral routes, and towns competed to see who could lay claim to the most charismatic local saint. And France has certainly had a lot of saints—even today, I find a little calendar of saints' days, printed discreetly in the endpages of my professional leatherette agenda book, so I will be sure not to forget anybody's name day when it comes.
This has been a secular nation for over two centuries now. The Revolution did away with the church as an instrument of rule, and France defends its public and political spaces from religious intervention with a fervor that amuses or confounds most Americans. But everyone needs to have something to collect, something to worship, something to make lists about. I wonder if French officialdom, in dedicating so much energy and thought to classifying, debating, and extolling its cheeses—and, in the process, the earth, regions, and towns that they are felt to represent—is building on the foundations of a practice not quite left behind with the end of the Middle Ages. After all, if a cheese can become known by a familiar name, treated or praised as a person would be, then where and why would we want to draw the line between foodstuff, mascot, and patron saint? It is a sturdy symbol, all right: polymorphous, meaningful, earthy, and alive. And, as Americans know quite as well as the English or the French, we all need a symbol to love.
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