France leads the world in cheese consumption. With over 400 varieties to choose from, it’s possible to eat a new cheese every day of the year – and still have spare for moments of pure uncontrolled gluttony. Even Charles de Gaulle, the country’s war time Prime Minister, once famously quipped; “how can you govern a country in which there are 400 kinds of cheese?”
For us, the prospect of trying many of them was a curious draw card to travelling Europe’s third biggest country. That was, until a recent birthday party in the department of l’Allier, snapped me out of my frenzied French love affair, with curdled dairy products.
“Dzo you like ourr cheeeze?” asked the celebrating host, as we sat around the bright glow of an outside fire.
“Sure do!” I replied. “If I had enough time, I’d love to try them all!”
It was a passing remark. One in which I expected the conversation to meander back onto more topical matters; like the forecast snow dump, or which colour marshmallows -currently toasting on our kids sticks- were the tastiest. But instead, he just paused in thoughtful prose, before asking; “have you ever tried vieux fromage de chevre?” – Aged goat’s cheese.
I knew I was being baited as ‘the foreigner’ judging by the sudden silence of all surrounding conversations. It was a challenge -that much was clear – but was it just a bit of friendly international banter, or, was this the French equivalent of the New Zealand Haka – If I backed out, would it be seen as cowardice, scared, or worse still, an insult to their culture? In the presence of many, the cheese tasting was duly accepted.
“That’s more than enough” I chipped in with, as his pocketknife cut through the shrivelled, yellow, fury substance.
“Is this really fromage anyway?” I questioned. -From where I sat, it looked more like an old man’s wrinkled testicle than food sourced from a nanny goat.
“Voila!” said our host, as the slice landed before me.
In it went…
Imagine a bile burp that has somehow infiltrated your best defenses, and, instead of noticing its entry at the back of your throat, you somehow first discover its repulsive sensation, on the tip of your tongue.
Now imagine the effort required in moving the degustation across each and every taste bud, whilst resisting your intrinsic mechanisms to barf openly, in front of complete strangers. Finally, consider if you can, the amount of sweating, nervous body twitching and eye bulging that it actually takes to swallow such a heinously offensive and cured substance. Got the picture? You now have a tiny understanding of what it’s like to try and swallow aged goat’s cheese..
I couldn’t do it.
From its near point of ‘no return’ at the back of my throat, the morsel came choking forward over my tongue and sat behind gritted teeth. It was a knock out victory to the cheese, until the relief of a nearby convenience housed the vintage morsel for a longer period.
In the face of such a robust Northern Hemisphere challenge, I’d been defeated.
In New Zealand, our challenge, the Haka is a sure guarantee to get every hair standing aloft and bring flushing relief once the fierce war like dance is over. But when it’s over, it’s over. In France though they do things differently. I understand this will be a drawn out affair…
-There’s only got another 386 different varieties of their challenge to go…