sans doute, love their fromages. And there’s much to love: hundreds of gloriously pungent varieties—crumbly, creamy, buttery, even shot through with bottle-green mold. So many varieties, in fact, that the aspiring gourmand may wonder: How does one make sense of it all?
In The Whole Fromage, Kathe Lison sets out to learn what makes French cheese so remarkable—why France is the “Cheese Mother Ship,” in the words of one American expert. Her journey takes her to cheese caves tucked within the craggy volcanic rock of Auvergne, to a centuries-old monastery in the French Alps, and to the farmlands that keep cheesemaking traditions alive. She meets the dairy scientists, shepherds, and affineurs who make up the world of modern French cheese, and whose lifestyles and philosophies are as varied and flavorful as the delicacies they produce. Most delicious of all, she meets the cheeses themselves—from spruce-wrapped Mont d’Or, so gooey it’s best eaten with a spoon; to luminous Beaufort, redolent of Alpine grasses and wildflowers, a single round of which can weigh as much as a Saint Bernard; to Camembert, invented in Normandy but beloved and imitated across the world.
With writing as piquant and rich as a well-aged Roquefort, as charming as a tender springtime chèvre, and yet as unsentimental as a stinky Maroilles, The Whole Fromage is a tasty exploration of one of the great culinary treasures of France.
Lison introduces herself as a native of Wisconsin with dairy running in her family line. That doesn’t exclude her from having early, beloved memories of Kraft macaroni and cheese, but it does provide a starting point for her adventures in French cheese knowledge: ground zero. Lison’s subsequent lessons in cheesemaking and eating are varied, but her main aim is to discover the history and methods behind some of the most well-known of French cheeses, and break down the processes, locales and people involved in making this delicious dairy product.
Each chapter is arranged roughly around a type of cheese, and anecdotes and history related to its development and modern (or not-so-modern) methods of making it. Lison focuses on Salers, Maroilles, goat cheese, Camembert, Beaufort, Comté, Roquefort and Brebis and Langres, though she does wander at times into disquisitions on other cheeses (including my own all-time favorite, Brie). The strongest chapter was that on Camembert, called ‘Cheese Is a Battlefield.’ Lison described the struggles of modern methods (science) versus tradition in the cheese landscape and the affect this has on production, community and the consumer.
Unfortunately, not all of the chapters were as robust. Lison succeeds in describing intricate cheesemaking methods, the historical provenance of these processes, and her own brief adventure in cheese making. Her writing falters somewhat in portrayals of individuals and depictions of the countryside, with odd word choice breaking the narrative into pieces rather than bringing it together as a whole. She also relies fairly heavily on quotes from Patrick Rance, eponymous author of the French Cheese Book (understandable, but sometimes more tedious than helpful).
Nevertheless, The Whole Fromage would be a perfect starting point for American Francophiles who savor food on their trips abroad (or plan to do so in the future), and who want a bit of irreverent back story on the special rituals and effort that go into making that delicious cheese at the end of a chic Parisian meal.
Recommended for: new cheese-lovers, aspiring gourmands, food magazine subscribers, and as a solid selection for food and travel book clubs.
Does The Whole Fromage sound like your kind of read? Enter the giveaway - simply fill out the FORM for a chance to win one trade paperback copy. Giveaway open to US addresses only, will end on August 4, 2013 at 11:59pm EST. Winner will be selected randomly and notified via email. Giveaway book will be provided and mailed directly by publisher. Good luck!
Interested in other food-related posts? Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!
Fine print: I received a copy of The Whole Fromage for review from Broadway (Penguin Random House). Giveaway prize provided by Broadway. I received no compensation for this post.