“The French are sawed-off sissies who eat snails and slugs and cheese that smells like people’s feet.”
The blade of Napoleon’s sword scythed air redolent of roasted meat as the man who would one day be emperor severed the top of the cheese before him. Its point landed with a soft plop.
Moments earlier, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, renowned French diplomat and the owner of the Château de Valençay, had noted the scowl creeping across the general’s face. The stain of red on his cheeks had nothing to do with their recent scorching by an Egyptian sun, nor the warm breezes wafting through from doors ﬂung open to a gravel courtyard. Inside the room, a hush fell over the guests gathered around the mahogany table, the silver-plate carving stand, the china banded in moss green and gilt. Outside, below the courtyard, the Nahon River, one of the numerous tributaries whose waters eventually join the Loire, ﬂowed in a quiet, dark streak.
Not long before, France had triumphed at the Battle of the Pyramids, and the success of Napoleon’s North African campaign seemed assured. Back then, Talleyrand had relished the pyramid-shaped fromage
produced on nearby farms. Why had he, Talleyrand, so skilled in the art of subtle manipulation, not considered how Napoleon might feel about the cheese now that the general had returned in defeat? The sound of the courtyard fountain, its spout ringed by cherubic stone children, trickled into the silence; a wine bottle, nestled in one of two marble ba- sins attached to the walls, shifted with a dull clunk. The guests, many of whom had jumped from their seats when the general called for his sword, stood without moving. Encumbered by the brace he wore for a chronic limp, Talleyrand remained near his chair, the froth of lace at his throat quivering. Napoleon spared none of them a glance as he set the sword next to the serving plate, nabbed a morsel of the now-decapitated cheese, and chewed.
This is one account—shamelessly embellished—of how the goat cheese known as Valençay came to be shaped like a ﬂattened pyramid. Other stories have Talleyrand beheading the cheese; in still others, the peasants around Valençay do the deed. According to yet another variation, Talleyrand, wanting to enjoy the ﬁne goat cheese from his country estate while in Paris, ordered his steward to alter the cheese molds before sending the tasty chèvres
to the city, where the emperor might see them. But the most popular version is the one in which Napoleon himself lops the tip off—a story with a heady mix of celebrity, deﬁant Frenchness, a hint of danger, and of course, a dash of cheese.
My own story with French cheese began less dramatically, with a trip to Paris. Charles de Gaulle is supposed to have said, “How can anyone govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” But de Gaulle’s number was only one estimate, as the book I bought one Christmas Eve at Charles de Gaulle Airport made clear: a Dorling Kindersley “visual guide to more than 350 cheeses from every region of France.” Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the actual number of French cheeses is one of those great unknowables, like the place the other sock disappeared to or whether or not God exists. Even the ubiquitous de Gaulle quote doesn’t stay constant—sometimes he laments the existence of 258 cheeses, sometimes 227, sometimes 324. Other sources say it wasn’t even de Gaulle but rather Winston Churchill who wanted to know “How can you govern a country with over 300 cheeses?”—to which the French president supposedly snapped back, “There are at least 350.” This number at least squares with that of my guidebook, but falls far short of estimates that put the number of French cheeses as high as 650. Six hundred and ﬁfty. Cheeses.
All produced in a country smaller than Texas.
I’d bought the book to learn more about the cheeses that my partner, Chris, and I were smuggling out of the country in our suitcases. One of them, a pungent, gooey cow’s milk cheese from the French Juras called Vacherin Mont d’Or, qualiﬁed as con- traband: a raw-milk cheese—i.e., an unpasteurized one—aged fewer than sixty days. Completely illegal in the United States, though at the time it didn’t occur that something as innocuous- seeming as cheese could turn us into petty criminals. The cheese was cushioned in a suit newly bought for Chris; he was making elaborate plans for fumigation even before we left French soil. When I showed him the book, Chris took one look at the cover and said, “Three hundred and ﬁfty cheeses! That’s practically a different cheese for every day of the year.”
“I know,” I responded, nearly whispering in awe, before plunking into a chair near our gate.
I opened the book—and encountered pictures so vivid I had to resist an urge to press my nose to the pages to see if I could smell them. There were cheeses with wild mulberry leaves pressed into their tops; cheeses bound with rushes; cheeses covered in ash, in cumin, in raisins, in bits of grape skin; cheeses furred with long hairs of mold; cheeses in the shape of bricks, logs, bells, sheep turds; gigantic round cheeses that could crush a poodle; and tiny goat cheeses so tender-looking you wanted to pick them up and soothe them. As I turned each glossy page, revealing another and yet another fabulous, even fantastical, cheese, I began to have questions. Why produce this crazy number of cheeses? I mean, why not just one nice sharp cheddar?
The French, I would eventually discover, have so many cheeses and so much lore to go with them that there’s even a Larousse des fromages
—a French cheese encyclopedia. What was the deal with the French and all this fromage
? I wanted to ﬁnd out.
Given my upbringing, you might say my interest in cheese was inevitable. I confess: I am a Cheesehead. By this, I don’t just mean that I love cheese (though, I do) or that I have a cheese obsession (though, I suppose you could say that), but that I was born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the place where otherwise sane-seeming folk regularly don foam wedges shaped like giant slices of Gruyère (though colored a bizarre, alien yellow we can only hope real Gruyère never attains). On Packer Sundays, these wedges crown the heads of the faithful at Lambeau Field, one part of a football, beer, and cheese-bratwurst trifecta.
When it comes to cheese, people from Wisconsin just can’t help themselves. License plates proclaim the state “America’s Dairyland,” and picture a happy little red barn, happy little ﬂapping birds, and a happy orange sunset. Some people believe that Colby, invented in Colby, Wisconsin, may have been the ﬁrst truly American cheese. Wisconsin is the nation’s largest producer of cheese, although California has long been on its tail, a fact that pisses off Wisconsinites to no end. A New York Times
report outlining the looming takeover quoted various cheese people in my home state: “Say cheese and you say Wisconsin,” claimed one. “When you drive through Wisconsin, what do you see but cheese? It’s who we are,” said another. As one journalist put it, “Cheese is a kind of secular religion in the upper Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin.”
My maternal grandfather kept and milked a dozen Holsteins on a farm north of Green Bay, and on my father’s side, my great- great-grandfather started a dairy that remained in the family well into the 1960s; as a boy, my grandfather rode along in the milk wagon making deliveries. In my kitchen sits an old bottle, the words “Lison’s Dairy” scrolling across its front in brown letters. I heard about that mom-and-pop operation—the empty storefront was a few blocks from my grandparents’ Green Bay home—all the time as I was growing up: “You should have tasted their chocolate milk!” As far as I know, no one in the family made cheese themselves, but my progenitors were certainly up to their eyeballs in udders.
Still, the Wisconsin cheese I ate in the 1970s could hardly be considered “artisanal.” Even if such cheeses had been available, I was the trailer park kid of a single mother just scraping by, sometimes with the help of food stamps. The cheese we knew was a somewhat bland, orange variety that came from the local food pantry in brown cardboard boxes stamped “U.S.D.A.,” or the sort found in Kraft Macaroni & Cheese—which, to be technical, is not really cheese at all. Mom used to pull a chair up to the stove and let me stir the elbow noodles, then help add the milk, butter, and garish powder that made the mess a cheesy delight.
Many of my organic-only, low-fat, health nut friends are horriﬁed when I own that even now, as an adult, I still eat Kraft Mac & Cheese. I have upgraded to the more reﬁned “Three Cheese with Mini-Shell Pasta” version, but it comes in that same blue box, an old pal on the cupboard shelf.
In other words, my childhood cheese, like that of most Americans, was industrial cheese. All of it was a far cry from raw-milk cheeses made high in the French Alps in wee chalets where they’ve been making cheese for centuries, or from cheeses with marvelous crusty rinds the color of toast, or from still others that you can break into and eat with a spoon. Wisconsin might be really into cheese, but it doesn’t come close to rivaling France—a fact I largely ignored when I spent a semester in Paris during my early twenties. Back then, in my fresh-from-the-Midwest naïveté, I thought even chèvre
"A mouth-watering read."—New York Post
"An inquisitive romp across France...Rich in storytelling, the book journeys between the historic past and the delicious present in one of the world's most diverse cheese realms. Pick up a copy of The Whole Fromage,
and get lost in it."—Culture
"From ancient villages to the heights of the Alps, Lison tracks down traditional cheese makers while sampling the fruits of their labors and offering descriptions as full of passion and flavor as the cheeses themselves."—Bask
“Kathe Lison proves she is a passionée de fromage
with her delightful foray into the French countryside. From the Loire Valley to the Alpine slopes, Lison’s journey is très amusant
… [and] captures a passion of all things fromage.”—Rob Kaufelt
, owner of Murray’s Cheese
"Kathe Lison is to French Cheese as Peter Mayle is to life in Provence. The Whole Fromage
reads like a novel- insightful with right amount of humility and humor."—Allison Hooper
, owner of Vermont Creamery
“Marvelous. Chockfull of humor, story-telling, passion and adventure, Kathe Lison’s cheese journey through France reads more like a novel than a true story. Plus, it conveys such a 'you are there' feeling that by the time you finish you’ve managed to take an entire trip without leaving your living room.”—Laura Werlin
, author of Laura Werlin's Cheese Essentials
"In my dreams, I get to do what Kathe Lison has done and tour France in search of cheese epiphanies. In the interim, I have her engaging book, The Whole Fromage,
to remind me of the personal stories embedded in each wheel of great cheese." —Janet Fletcher
, author of Cheese & Beer
and Cheese & Wine
"France is a cheese-driven country, and this book gets right to its pungent, creamy heart." —Stephen Clarke
, author of 1000 Years of Annoying the French
"Reading The Whole Fromage
is like enjoying an illicit raw-milk Brie. Kathe Lison follows her nose across France to explore the country's wild obsession with cheese…If Joan Didion had fallen tastebuds over heels for French cheese, then she might have written this book." —Tenaya Darlington
, author of Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese
"A thorough, inspired look at France from a devoted and curious cheese lover and writer."—Kirstin Jackson
, author of It's Not You, It's Brie
"Kathe Lison's book expresses her loving familiarity with the wonderful and complex world of French cheese. It takes you from the fields where the animals graze, through the creamery, shops and right to your table. Prepare to devoir this book! And prepare to be hungry!" —Lucia Watson
, owner of Lucia's Restaurant and co-author of Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland
“Lison seamlessly conveys the experience of tasting the creamy, luscious [Camembert] and its many cousins. Part travelogue, part homage to fromage, Lison's book is informative and endearing and will appeal to foodies, Francophiles, and hungry readers.”—Publishers Weekly
“If anyone in America has a right to claim authority on the subject of cheese, author Lison does...A lot of books have been published about the history, culture, and virtues of France’s cheeses, but this one celebrates the farmers, dairymen, and cheese makers who have established France’s cheeses as still the world’s standard.”—Booklist
“Her curiosity piqued by the multitude of French cheeses, essayist and self-proclaimed cheesehead Lison chronicles her tasty culinary journey exploring the art and science of French cheese making...Whether Lison is ruminating on the short lactation cycle of sheep, the origins of rennet, or the grassy, lemony taste of a spring goat cheese, readers will have all their senses engaged.”—Kirkus