Her curiosity piqued by the multitude of French cheeses, essayist and self-proclaimed cheesehead Lison chronicles her tasty culinary journey exploring the art and science of French cheese making.
Since she grew up in Wisconsin, the nation’s largest producer of cheese, her “interest in cheese was inevitable.” Following a perusal of a French cheese encyclopedia describing more than 350 kinds of fermented milk, the author poses a basic question: “Why produce this crazy number of cheeses? I mean, why not just one nice sharp cheddar?” Lison’s query engendered nearly 7,000 miles of travel and the consumption of copious amounts of artisanal cheese. The author trekked from high alpine barnyards to sparkling multinational corporate headquarters, talking with shepherds and scientists. Along the way, Lison discourses on the merits of hand milking vs. portable milking machines and the history of the classification system, which consists of five basic types of cheese. The author explores what makes some cheeses so stinky and why, since the Middle Ages Roquefort, cheese and the concept of appellation have been intertwined. Lison attended what she calls a “cheese-tasting debutante ball” and explains the real meaning behind the Camembert War. “Camembert however, is the dream of the French cheese,” she writes, “a fromage so closely linked with Frenchness in the minds of people everywhere that just the name ‘Camembert’ evokes visions of berets and fleurs-de-lys.” The author laces the narrative with satisfying kernels of French agricultural history, especially data concerning the pressures of the post–World War II environment and its role in hollowing out the population of the French countryside.
Whether Lison is ruminating on the short lactation cycle of sheep, the origins of rennet, or the grassy, lemony taste of a spring goat cheese, readers will have all their senses engaged.