A Wisconsin girl finds her heart in French cheese, it makes a certain sense. In The Whole Fromage, Kathe Lison is on a quest to chronicle French cheesemaking and frequently finds a world where old traditions are falling away in the face of technology, expediency, and the global marketplace. She journeys across France from the traditional burons to cheese-producing monasteries and the diminishing crop of farmwives producing homegrown specialties, chronicling an industry in flux.
Lison’s exploration is a meditation on what makes French cheese French. She wades into the intricacies of the AOC, the Appellation d’Origin Controllee, the certification that protects wine, cheese, and other agricultural products from specific geographic regions. For the French, cheesemaking is part of the national heritage and even as technology changes the process, the specific qualities of particular French cheeses are very important to their producers and to the public at large.
One can’t talk about French cheese without delving into the controversy over lait cru, raw milk. The cheese which is made from unpasteurized milk is losing favor among cheese consumers but is still fiercely fought for. The Camembert Wars, a battle over the right to produce and sell raw milk Camembert de Normandie and whether or not the AOC rules should be changed, is a battle between corporate cheesemakers and tradition. A raw milk Camembert aged under 60 days cannot be imported into the United States, limiting the cheese’s global marketability. Tradition won out and the AOC rules remain in place, for now.
Cheese in the French sense, isn’t the sanitized packaged block of pale yellow or brilliant orange we have in grocery stores. It’s smelly, odd-shaped, and made in ways that might horrify the sensitive of stomach. Mold is the least of it. Cheeses such as Morbier are layered with ash, aged Mimolette is infested with mites, others are aged beyond all good reason all in pursuit of flavor.
While cheeses are made in increasingly modern ways, the established methods remain in place as well. Lison observes all types of cheesemaking, from how Comte is sounded for ripeness to the precise method used to introduce mold into Roquefort. What comes through clearly in Lison’s profiles is how much work and pride goes into each wheel of cheese. Her enthusiasm for all things cheese makes this a summer must read for anyone who haunts their local cheese shop looking for new flavors to try.