Moi? J’aime le France
France is powerful both as a notion and an international cultural force. Mention France and you’re sure to get some sort of visceral reaction from Americans, whether it’s delight or disdain. I fall into the former camp; for me, France is my happy place. I adore the food, architecture, etiquette, and pace of life. In my twenties I had been fortunate enough to visit three times and fallen in love with it, so much so that it makes me leap for joy or turn a cartwheel, literally.
Now nearly 40, I was planning a food and culture themed study abroad to France for my college and had researching to do. I skimmed books, scanned websites, and read articles. In this flurry of information-gathering, I came across a book about French cheeses written by an American woman that sounded fun. I clicked the public library book request form and waited for its delivery to my local branch.
Savoring The Whole Fromage
Now, I grew up eating 2 kinds of cheese: plastic wrapped American slices and those big blocks of orange cheddar that would probably come in handy as building materials. This is a big reason why I connected with Kathe Lison’s The Whole Fromage immediately; she opens her book on exploring France in pursuit of its finest cheeses with a similar childhood declaration.
Throughout, her disarming attitude and mischievous sense of humor draw you in and make you feel as though you are on a cheese road trip with a fun friend. Lison travels around France, tasting all sorts of gooey, stinky, nutty, and creamy cheeses, imparting the history, cultural significance and process for each.
“There’s certainly no shortage of food history to preserve when it comes to French cheese. Over the centuries, it has kept infants from starving, served as currency, shaped landscapes, helped to disseminate religion, inspired poetry, sparked protests, and started wars (well, cheese wars). This is why we love cheese: it contains multitudes.” –Kathe Lison, The Whole Fromage
It was the type of book I found myself learning along with effortlessly, completely caught up in the narrative. When I finished the last page, I sighed a bittersweet exhalation. It was a delightful journey with Lison but it was at its end.
Food & Culture Study Abroad in France
Fast forward one year and I am standing in the streets of the St. Germain neighborhood of Paris on a foodie tour, surrounded by my students and coworkers and their family members on this food and culture study abroad trip. We had just finished an amazing lunch, including a cheese tray for dessert.
My mind wanders back to Lison’s book, the cheeses we are savoring and the ones she highlighted. We continue on, guided to a pastry shop that boggles all the senses and an ingenious chocolate shop. Later in our trip we visit Rungis Market outside of Paris, including their enormous cheese hall. So transported by the experience and the flavors on my travels, I want to share what I’ve learned about food and the world too, like Lison and our foodie tour guide. This would lead me a year later to start my blog…but I digress.
Book Tasting at Crisafulli’s Cheese Shop
(EDIT: Sadly, Crisafulli’s Cheese Shop closed in 2019.)
So, back to the cheeses, the United States, and the present. Downtown Frederick, Maryland has its very own cheese purveyor, Crisafulli’s Cheese Shop. They are a great source for cheese, cheese-related merchandise, and other tasty things to eat and drink. It’s the kind of place where a fancy cheese newbie can ask questions, get recommendations, and try samples in a warm and friendly environment. (Not to mention that they have amazing sandwiches and macaroni and cheese.) They also hold a variety of classes, everything from an intro to cheese, focus on specific varieties, pairing cheeses with drinks, and more.
In a sudden lightning bolt of inspiration, I had the idea to combine a book discussion with a cheese tasting. It would be a book tasting–we would read and discuss the book and also taste and learn about the cheeses from it. Click here to read my interview with The Frederick News Post at Crisafulli’s where I explain more about my connection to cheese, France, and food in general.
We structured the session so it would be enjoyable with or without reading the book. Crisafulli’s owner Sharon put together a cheese plate for each attendee, with Beaufort, Mimolette, Brillat-Savarin triple creme Brie, and Roquefort. Also on hand were whole grain Dijon mustard infused with black currant, dried fruits, and crusty slices of baguette. We washed it all down with Saratoga Springs sparkling water. Sharon guided us through a tasting of each cheese, giving us insights from her expertise. I followed up with historical and cultural information about each cheese, building on Lison’s text and my insights on French culture.
We tasted the cheeses, sharing our reactions and observations and discussing our experiences in France and with cheese. After tasting the triple creme Brie, I declared that I was floating on a tide of cheese ecstasy. The room filled with laughter and lively conversations. It was a simply delightful evening of camaraderie, learning, and savoring.