The Whole Fromage
Back in February, I caught wind of a fellow dairy fiend from Wisconsin who was writing a book — a sexy French cheese travelogue. Of course, I had to sniff it out, and soon Kathe Lison and I were swapping emails and galley copies of our books. Lison’s The Whole Fromage dropped in late June, and it’s a glorious beauty – one of the most enthralling cheese reads I’ve come across (it now sits atop Max McCalman’s tomes at my bedside).
The Whole Fromage is a cheese book with narrative: Lison journeys across France in an effort to understand the national obsession with cheese. Along the way, she meets a series of characters who are deeply involved in the dairy lifestyle, and using her writerly instincts (Lison is an award-winning essayist) she paints the most lush scenes of their activities as she bounds from monasteries to caves to a mountain “buron” (hut) in the Auvergne where a rare cheese called Salers is made.
Because I was so taken with this book, I asked Lison for an interview.
An Interview with Kathe Lison
You are the Nancy Drew of French cheese in a way — a young American woman who sets off in search of a dairy mystery. What did your French hosts make of this?
Hmm. Me as the Nancy Drew of French cheese. I like it! But to answer your question: Many of them thought I was really strange. Most American tourists simply don’t do what I did, which was to hit the backroads of France in search of cheese. Also, because there were few hotels in the places I tended to visit, I often stayed on farms or in chambres d’hôtes—bed and breakfast rooms—where I was truly an anomaly. In one place, outside the tiny town of Die in the Drôme, the woman running my guest house pulled out an atlas so I could show her on the map exactly where I was from in the U.S. and then insisted I sign her guestbook because I was “the last person from there” who would ever again visit her establishment!
Tell me a little bit about your itinerary — how did you map out your quest? Was it by region? By cheese?
I made a deliberate decision at the beginning of my travels not to seek out the “best” French cheeses, or at least not in the usual sense. I didn’t want to start by interviewing insiders in the French gastronomical world and then go where they told me to go. Instead, I decided to set off into the French countryside to see what the “real” cheese landscape of France might look like. As to how I chose to order the itinerary: In early drafts I thought the book might be organized seasonally, so I started off with “spring” goat cheeses and went from there. (Later, as it became clear that it made more sense to organize the book around the story of French cheese history and culture, I re-ordered the chapters.) When it came to choosing cheesemakers, sometimes I consulted cheese maps and brochures, and sometimes, honestly, I just drove around looking. The fact that I was almost forced to stay in B&Bs turned out to be a boon. I’d arrive and tell my hosts what I was doing, and then they’d say “Oh, so and so down the road makes excellent cheese…”. That was how I found René Miramon, the wonderful, crusty old sheep herder in the Pyrenees whose story ends the book.
How long did it take you to complete your field research?
I did it over the course of three years, though that makes it sound longer than it was. It actually started out as something of a lark. My friend Sarah, who appears in the book, invited me to come stay with her in France. At the time, I’d been toying with the idea of writing about French cheese for several years. So I decided to take her up on her offer, and (why not?) do a bit of fromage investigation while there. As it turned out, the area she was staying in, the Haute Savoie, is one of the best cheese regions of the world. We ran around visiting cheesemakers and eating cheese while I scribbled rather hasty notes and snapped blurry photographs. Then I wrote up the book proposal, thinking that nothing much would come of it. To my surprise, the first two agents I contacted wrote back with what can only be described as shocking speed, and soon I had a contract. After that, I spent most of 2008 in and out of France doing research—I would spend six weeks abroad and then six weeks at home. I made one more follow-up trip in the summer of 2009, when I visited the Salers buron. I almost didn’t do that one, as I already had plenty of research material, but something was telling me I wasn’t finished. Since it proved to be a crucial part of the story, and leads off the book, I’m glad I followed my instincts.
Who was the most memorable person you met along the way?
Gosh. Just one! There were so many. One of my favorites actually didn’t make it into the book. I was in Corsica, where I’d managed to arrive during the only two weeks out of the year during which no one on the entire island is actually making cheese. But I drove into mountains all the same, to where they make Niolo, a famous Corsican washed rind cheese. The guy who owned one of the places I visited had a shaved head and looked more like a bad-ass member of a heavy metal band than a cheesemaker (I later learned that he hung a dead goat from a traffic light to protest a lack of government help with a livestock disease). While we were talking he was laying bricks for a new fromagerie. When I told him why I’d come, he looked at me as if I must be the stupidest creature on the planet, and then the man helping him held up a brick and said “There’s your fromage!” It wasn’t one of my more stellar research moments, but it certainly was memorable.
Your book contains my favorite ever rationale for the mounting phobia surrounding raw milk; you quote Boisard who pins it on the inherent eroticism of milk from the teat. Do you agree that raw milk is “too sexy” for Americans?
Raw milk is such an interesting issue. I should start by saying that I fully support raw milk cheeses. As I say in the book, I’ve eaten oodles of them without a problem; I love their complexity and ability to surprise. What I find problematic is the lack of nuance that often surrounds the debate—I don’t think we get anywhere by not being accurate about the situation and what’s really going on—so I tried to take a more subtle approach. But back to the question of raw milk cheeses being too sexy for Americans. I want to say no, and that it’s the ridiculous germ-a-phobia of Americans that’s the real culprit, but in a sense, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing, isn’t it? Americans can be awfully squeamish about bodies, and a real, live, breathing raw milk cheese is a sort of body—often a smelly one at that. I think of James Joyce, who famously told his wife Nora “don’t wash.” Maybe that’s the sort of attitude we need to cultivate in order to truly appreciate fine cheese!
You are a native Wisconsinite who has eaten the finest French cheeses and now lives in Tucson — how do you survive this cheese desert?
Well, I eat a lot of extra sharp cheddar. It’s funny though—for me cheese is very place dependent. I eat far more artisan cheese when I’m in France simply because it’s such a part of daily life there. Open the door of a French person’s fridge, and you’ll find a cheese plate sitting on the bottom shelf. They don’t think of “gourmet” cheese as being something extraordinary, and so it isn’t. I fall into that when I’m there—it becomes part of my rhythm. Here, that’s not so much the case, so I miss it less than you might suppose.
That said, when I do find myself thinking longingly of the fabulous cheese you can get pretty much everywhere in France, I usually buy cheeses made in the States. Though you can get French cheeses here, in my experience they’re often not on a par with what you can get in France. The French still seem to think it’s okay to send Americans an array of quasi-factory “artisan” cheeses rather than the real deal—I suspect they’re still responding to what Americans used to want twenty years ago. But since so many American makers have based their cheeses off French originals, if you want good fromage in the U.S., the secret is to buy American! Bonne Bouche, by Vermont Creamery, springs to mind as an example.
That’s a large part of why I wrote the book—to acquaint readers on this side of the pond with the history of cheeses that served as models for the stupendous array of goodies our own makers are now producing. And if you can find a good cheesemonger to guide you—even better. I just got wind that such a person, a woman by the name of Tana Fryer, is about to open a new cheese shop, Blu Arizona, in Tucson this fall. I can’t wait to smell the fromage, let alone taste it.
If you could miraculously manifest a single French cheese in your refrigerator, what cheese would that be?
Beaufort d’Alpage. That’s a wimpy answer, and if a cheese expert or French person asks you that question, you should definitely respond by saying “Epoisses” or something else that’s equally rank and tough to love. But I was lucky enough to taste a Beaufort d’Alpage early on in my research, one I got at an actual alpage not far from Beaufort sur Doron. It was a luscious, extraordinary cheese, full of heady nut and caramelized onion notes, and it was my first experience with tyrosine clusters—those little flecks of what tastes like candied cheese that you sometimes find in a well-aged Gruyère. Words begin to fail…. Let’s just say it was life transforming, and that if I could figure out a way to get my fridge to miraculously manifest Beaufort on a regular basis, I would die a happy woman!