“Parlez-vous un peu Français?”
“Yes, a little,” the burly Frenchman behind the cheese counter replied with a thick accent.
And so I could finally, for the first time in two weeks, ask for recommendations on cheeses that I may like, that are local, that smell strong and taste stronger. My French is pas mal (not bad) but I lack the vocabulary to describe my dream cheese. In the past, I’ve simply picked up what I know I love – Camembert – or grabbed a cute cheese (yes, they exist) from the refrigerated aisle of the neighborhood market. But now I have gone to une fromagerie (cheese shop) and, at the cheesemonger’s recommendation, I walk out of the shop with a soft cheese, coated in a layer of dried sage flowers. By the time I’m home, the insides are oozing out of the rind into the filmy paper he carefully wrapped my wonder-cheese in. I spread the silky goo haphazardly over a baguette, over excited to taste, and take a huge bite. It is absolutely, 100-percent, without a doubt, delicious.
It’s intimidating to try things you’re unfamiliar with, more so when its name has no meaning to you and your French is not good enough to ask the vendor specific questions about products, let alone understand their detailed responses. The one thing I have learned, though, is that all French cheese is good, so you cannot go wrong. I encourage you to judge a book by its cover – buy the one elegantly draped in a fern leaf or the dusty orange one washed in red wine; I guarantee you will love it (and if you by some wild chance do not, at least you can be proud that you tried something entirely knew).
Though my narrations may make it appear as though I eat cheese and only cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that is far from the truth – okay, so I have it at least once a day, but not for every meal. In fact, the lunches served at our host university are out of this world, or at least way out of America’s realm! The selection as well as freshness and artful preparation would never be found in a normal cafeteria in the States. This highlights yet another cultural food difference: the French are taught from a young age the integral role of food in culture and how to appreciate this form of heritage. I weep for my elementary-school self, who got excited at the prospect of chicken-patty-Tuesdays – instead of the usual gruel – when French children are unsurprised at the fresh fish and artisanal cheeses gracing their plates every day. Did you know that public schools in France even use place settings, with real metal utensils and ceramic dishware? In my 12 years of public school, I was never once trusted to eat with things that may break.
I’m surprised it has taken me so long to talk about food because life here revolves around it. People spend their afternoons lounging in wooden chairs propped outside café doors; they grocery shop religiously, and with fervor; to the French, every meal is a celebration and deserves to be cherished and savored. So, talking solely about cheese is not doing the French food scene as a whole much justice. Do not fear, this will not be the last post about cuisine, but it may perhaps be the most passionate. Afterall, I’m typing this as I finish up the last of my Fleur de Sauge (the heaven-sent sage cheese) – it’s enough to make anyone ardent.