by Julia Alekseyeva
Cheese. Oaky, nutty, creamy, earthy, smelly, borderline pornographic cheese. There is perhaps no food that better symbolizes the country of France, which has up to 450 distinct, government-sanctioned variants— and perhaps many hundreds more flavor variants within those.
On a clear-skied summer day in Paris, I walk to La Crèmerie in the lively 10th arrondissement—a formerly working-class district which gentrified several years prior. Having just received some good news, I set out on a leisurely stroll to celebrate, and pause briefly at the Place de la République, where the firebrand occupants of the leftist Nuit Debout political movement set up camp. Looking at the placards below the statue of Marianne, a personification of the French Republic, I remember walking through these selfsame streets in 2008, clutching my wallet in fear of pickpockets; now I feel an odd discomfort, seeing the proliferation of concert venues and cocktail bars down the street. A few blocks over is the sun-dappled Canal St. Martin, where young strollers gather on iron bridges to watch in awe as a ferry passes through its many locks and portals. But instead of joining them, I walk inside the small magenta-colored shop, owned by the maman of my friend Caroline, and breathe in the rich, unmistakable smell of—what else?—cheese.
Cheese. Oaky, nutty, creamy, earthy, smelly, borderline pornographic cheese. There is perhaps no food that better symbolizes the country of France, which has up to 450 distinct, government-sanctioned variants— and perhaps many hundreds more flavor variants within those. Found in every refrigerator in every home in Paris (this is, at least from my experience, no exaggeration), cheese could be eaten at all three meals of the day: as a continental breakfast, pairing an airy chèvre with a few chunks of leftover baguette and bonne maman jam; heaping slices of brie or camembert in a sandwich for lunch; or after dinner as dessert, relaxing with small slices of a more flavorful variety—a roquefort or comté.
Indeed, cheese is so integral to French cuisine that it has become a complete cliché of the culture. My first experience with anything but the blocks of cheddar, Swiss, and Munster of my childhood was 11th grade French class, when Madame Conway whisked me away to gastronomic heaven through nothing but Boursin cheese on a Ritz cracker. For this anxious Jewish Midwesterner, for whom Paris always seemed as distant as the moon, it symbolized a calmer, more carefree life, a world away from the bloodshed and concrete chaos of Chicago, alias Chi-Raq. It is no accident, then, that we say the moon is made of cheese—an almost otherworldly concoction that turns a snack into an extraordinary sensorial delight. No thanks for the Madeleine, Proust—I'll take the thick creaminess of pure, animal cholesterol.
So on this summer day, in celebration, I hold a twenty-euro bill in my hand and force myself to acquire all the cheese (and dried meats) such money could buy. The shop does not sell small blocks wrapped in plastic à la Trader Joe's, but exhibits mostly enormous portions that are gently sliced to each customer's desired size. There is more care given to the art of cheese-cutting than I've ever seen applied to the art of cappuccino foam, or even cake-décor: if the cheese is in the shape of a giant wedge, an indentation is first made on two sides with a sharp knife, and then a kind of terrifying metallic floss slices between these two indentations until a perfect geometric wedge is miraculously produced. Holding the wedge, I realize that I would not last a day as a cheese-specialist with all digits intact.
The shop also lets you try a small slice of any cheese before buying—a privilege I abuse more than I would normally admit. First, I choose a disc of chèvre covered in black pepper; delicate and soft, and surprisingly piquant, I pair it in the morning with dried wheat bread and olives. Next up: a steadfast brie, perfectly spreadable on a baguette for lunch—a safe choice. Then, a beaufort, oaky and with a hint of smoke—a deliciously hip cousin of Swiss. (By this point, the shopkeeper seems to be losing patience with my wide-eyed, salivating face walking in circles around the room and asks if he can briefly take another's order. I believe it is at this point that my enthusiastic American-ness overwhelmingly asserts itself.)
And yet, I am not satisfied. After having paced around the room for a few more minutes, I ask him: what do you have that is fort (strong)? As if expecting this all along, he immediately gestures to an enormous wedge, sporting the label Tomme aux fleurs sauvage. And there it is: the exact flavor I was looking for, a sharp mushroom-like earthiness reminiscent of forests and wildflower fields. Strong, but not overwhelming, the Tomme lingers on the back of my throat, a pleasant warmth. I immediately need more.
I carry the gently-wrapped packets of lactose product back to my apartment, where I spend half an hour making obscene orgiastic sounds as I try first one, then another, then another. This is a scene I rehearse every time I arrive in Paris after having spent months, or even many years, away: an immediate, jet-lag-fueled trip to the grocery store for pâté, cheese, and baguette, followed by the same quasi-sexual consumption of the aforementioned, followed by a contented sigh. Before the Pompidou or Palais de Tokyo, before the vintage shops of Le Marais and the gargoyles of Notre Dame, there is always this ritual, incessantly repeated.
My roommate in Paris tapes a piece of paper next to the fridge for guests to fill, entitled Les Petits Plaisirs de la Vie. I write fromage in tiny, guilty letters, wondering if cheese were equivalent to the sight of a beautiful sunset, a bike-ride, or a chat with a dear old friend. Settling in to read a text on neoliberalism—I'm in town for a workshop on Critical Theory—I wonder, does this completely pedestrian obsession make me a bad Marxist, a petit-bourgeois? “Eh, worth it,” I decide, plopping the last remaining bits of Tomme into my mouth like a delectable peach.