What started as an innocent attempt to learn more about French cheese led Kathe Lison on a journey that took her to meet the producers, experts—and characters—that carry on France’s rich cheese-producing legacy. She chronicles her effort to make sense of a dizzying array of fromage and its lore in The Whole Fromage, part memoir, part cheese guide, part travel adventure. One of the many useful things she learned is how a country that celebrates cheese doesn’t collapse from the weight of eating it every day. Here’s how they do it:
Open the refrigerator door in any French home, and you will find a dinner plate — the household equivalent of the grand plateau de fromage found in Michelin-starred restaurants — filled with half-eaten hunks of crumbling, oozing or just plain stinky varieties of curdled milk.
Few things are as embedded in French food culture as fromage, and this humble plate is actually the first step to eating cheese like a French person. “A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” opined the well-known gastronome Brillat-Savarin, and all of those plates, all across the Hexagon, prove how deeply the French take that maxim to heart.
The next step to eating cheese like a French person is to set your cheese plate out as you get out the ingredients to make your meal. That way, by the time you are finished cooking and eating, the cheeses will have reached room temperature, which is optimal for flavor. Though this sounds like a small thing, it’s important not only because you can then experience cheese in all its unctuous glory, but because experiencing that unctuous glory is, in fact, good for your health.
I am speaking, of course, of the famous French paradox: How, we Americans often wonder, do the French get away with eating all of that fromage? It must be French-voodoo-magic. The French, for their part, say, “Americans don’t know how to eat.” Not “what” to eat, but “how.” For them, correct eating includes strict mealtimes (the French government even runs a commercial campaign that reminds citizens of the dangers of snacking) and eating in courses. There is none — or at least very little — of the all-day grazing to which Americans fall prey, and splitting meals into pieces results in automatic pauses which allow the brain to catch up with stomach.
Correct eating also includes quality food full of taste: hence the plate stocked with toothsome cheeses ready and waiting on the counter for the end of the meal. Far from causing the French to overeat, a few slivers of decadent, fat-laden cheese send an unequivocal “I’m full now!” message to their heads. It’s a strategy of moderation, a far better one than consuming half a block of “skinny” cheese (and quite possibly more total calories) in the vain hope that it might taste better the longer you chew.
The ultimate step to eating cheese like a French person, then, is this: Enjoy it. If there’s one thing the French know well about eating right, it’s that it should be pleasurable. So, make like a French person and savor your cheese.
Find drool-inducing cheese photos to inspire your next plateau de fromage on The Whole Fromage Pinterest page. (Seriously, one of her boards is called “drool.”)