As the end of my time in Aix-en-Provence, France drew to a close almost exactly a year ago, the time came for one of our planned activities. One I had been looking forward to for weeks. Why? Cheese tasting. I have no idea where my love of cheese began, but for a cheese connosieur, France is definitely the place to be. We actually had two cheese tastings in the span of a few days—one at a snazzy cheese-boutique, if you will, and one at a goat farm. That’s right. I saw the goats that made the cheese I was eating. I even got the chance to try the cheese in its three stages of development. I always considered goat cheese a milder-tasting cheese compared to Bleu or Gorgonzola, but you could really taste the differences in taste as well as the more obvious difference in textures. We crammed an illegal amount of girls into a ridiculously tiny car after taking a bus to what we thought was the middle of nowhere. The goat farm was family run and I’m pretty certain they ran the shop off of their house. Interspersed with our tasting we petted the goats, chased the roosters, and terrorized the adorable, mostly feral kittens. While the place had a very quaint feel when you approached, the owner was quite business-like and I felt like we were a school tour. This particular farm had its share of visitors.
Our second tasting was far different. The shop was closed to everyone except us—the owner actually lowered the metal gate over the doors after we were all inside. We crowded inside the long narrow store, which I can only describe as a boutique. Beautiful cheeses lined the walls in glass cases, artfully displayed like rare gems in their rinds and wax coatings. The store owner looked just like Mads Mikkelsen to me (he played le Chiffre in the Daniel Craig/James Bond film Casino Royale which must be why I connected them so quickly) and spoke entirely in French. I always enjoyed it more when our hosts spoke French to us, even if we wouldn’t catch everything they said. The owner, we discovered, was formerly employed by Dell and, from what I understood, did extremely well for himself. One day, he decided that he was done with computers and circuit boards and decided to quit his job and devote his life to his true passion: cheese.
What is more French than that? I cannot recall another time when I have actually met someone who gave up a high paying job in which they excelled to pursue what other people would call their “hobby.” It’s the Cinderella story we always hear, the example we are encouraged to follow—until we land in the real world. I could tell from the hour that we spent with him that he never regretted his choice for one moment. As he filled our paper cups with wine and made us all eat until the different samples of cheese had disappeared off of the wooden cutting board, he taught us about more than just the flavors we were tasting. He taught us how to properly slice a cheese, in order to save us from embarrassment in French society. We discussed the different rules France has on the creation and distribution of different products. The visit was less about simply pleasing our tastebuds and more about what it is to be truly French. This man shut down his shop for an afternoon to essentially hang around with a group of American college students and to talk about his life and his passion. He was genial and engaging and absolutely determined that we all enjoy ourselves—as though we could have done otherwise.
The way he spoke was so vivid as well and I honestly don’t remember if the descriptions that stuck with me were in French or English, and it doesn’t really matter. He was talking about—of all things—the different kinds of cheese rinds. Some cheeses you can, and should, eat the rind. On other cheeses, especially the large ones, you should not eat the rind because these cheeses are so large they have to be rolled on the bare ground to be moved. The rind is part of the curing process. He held one cheese with a particularly interesting looking rind and explained that the rind is basically the “mold” that grows (the cheese in France is mainly unpasteurized). As it builds up, it is scraped and rubbed and eventually forms the rind. He ran his hands over the rind of the cheese, explaining that you know it is ready when the rind feels like the outside of a worn leather book.
In one fell swoop he combined two of my most beloved things on earth: cheese and leather-bound books. The man was amazing. Every time I eat cheese in America I can’t help but compare it in my mind to the products in France. Maybe it’s a combination of the atmosphere, the ambiance…there are no stores dedicated just to cheese where I live. If there were, I can’t help but think they would still be impersonal and commercial. The store owner would never show you into the back where the cheeses aged in the fridge or demand that you eat the rest of the cheese on the platter and try it with fig preserves or finish off the bottle of wine he opened. There is nothing like being allowed to see a glimpse of someone else’s passion, it makes you more interested, more engaged in what they are saying and doing. For me, who already love all things cheesy, it was no very big stretch. But, of all the things I saw and did in France, it definitely says something that the little cheese store and its eccentric owner have stuck with me for a year, even down to the way he looked and the way he ran his hands over the beautiful, leathery rind of that lovely cheese.