The French expression ‘en faire tout un fromage’ offers up one of those wonderful synchronicities of language. Translation: to raise a fuss about something or, more appropriately, to make a stink. Anyone who has ever experienced the smell of a ripe camembert will surely see the poetic justice in that. There is a reason the cheese stands alone.
Les fromages qui puent – the stinky cheeses – is how the French refer to themselves while poking fun at the Sylvester Stallone-inspired Americans on the political satire puppet program, Les Guignols de l’Info. They somehow make the mockery sound like a term of endearment.
No matter how you feel about raw-milk cheese, there is no denying its tendency to smell a bit strong. I remember being invited to my in-laws home for the first time, entering the kitchen and being assaulted by a waft of something that had died, or done its business. Upon seeing my alarmed expression, my fiancé was reassuring: “Don’t worry, it’s just the cheese.”
When it came time to actually eat the stuff, I was surprised that the strong smell had mostly evaporated. Whether it was the wine we washed it down with – Bordeaux bien sûr – or the fact that our sense of smell had attenuated by then, I can’t say. What I will say, however, is that over the years I’ve eaten quite a few French cheeses and it’s not the ones that necessarily look or smell the worst that are the strongest tasting. Although I do point the finger at le camembert for being particularly putrid and prone to repeat. As a general rule, I avoid anything that wears an orange coat. Also I don’t eat the rind, no matter many times my husband and others will chide me by saying, “Mais c’est bon ça!”
As Charles de Gaulle himself once said: “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” In fact, le général rather underestimated his country’s cheese-making capacities – there are over 1,000. Some of my favorites are included in this list of 100 things to enjoy in France.
Suffice it to say that you need a strong stomach to live here. And you are well served by not having too delicate a sense of smell.
Here’s a video for French speakers (and worth watching even if you don’t speak the language of Molière) that answers the burning question: Which is the stinkiest cheese?
What’s your favorite cheese?