Looking for her roots in Normandy, an American writer fell in love with pungent cheese and discovered the importance of terroir in French culture and gastronomy.
The sky of Normandy is so blue that painters whose work hangs in the Musée d’Orsay had to find new pigment to paint it — so a guide told me. The sun that shines in the Normandy sky makes Normandy grass that is eaten by Normandy cows that make wonderful milk and amazing cheese. And so the French recognize the acidity of the soil, the sweetness of the water, and the unique quality of sunlight that go into shaping grass and grape into food and wine. A concoction of nature and human stewardship, these quality products are identified by labeling as A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée).
Under the auspices of the French Department of Agriculture, the I.N.A.O. (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine et de la Qualité) defines the geographical regions and conditions that allow a foodstuff to be labeled A.O.C. Regional agricultural products are understood not simply as substance but as substance produced in very special conditions.
As an American searching for my French family history, the importance of connection to the land highlighted my plight. My long-deceased mother was French. She had worked for the underground during World War II, been caught by the Gestapo, and put in German prisons. I came to France to research her history and hoped to learn something from the French family I had recently located.
Before we worked as sleuths researching my mother’s history, my French cousin, Annie, and her husband, Christian, tested me to see how French I really was. They tested me through food.
Annie and Christian lived in a part of France where the neighbors made wine and the grandchildren raised rabbits for the stewpot. They picked me up at the train station and after exiting their van, I saw the lovely garden in their yard. Snails weighted the leaves of shrubbery.
“Escargot,” Christian said. “Do you eat snails?
“Maybe.” A vegetarian, I hadn’t yet formulated a position on mollusks.
At dinner, our conversation combined food and the war, and it went something like this:
“Would you like to start with Pernod or some red wine? My friend has a farm and he makes this wine. We will have some for dinner. You don’t have to drink the whole thing. Annie spent a lot of time with Grandmother, and Grandmother told her nothing. Red or white? My neighbor with the farm, he also raises birds. Do you like pigeon? But you eat birds, yes? Poulet, duck, dindon. Dindon is what you call it?”
“D’accord, turkey. Tomorrow, we have fish. Do you like duck? Duck confit? Annie says that of the three sisters, if anyone would do something, of course it would be Andrée but no one knew about the Resistance.”
I had eaten neither rabbit nor hare, beef nor veal, not even a frog leg. Not even a snail. How could I claim to be of French descent?
I was redeemed by cheese.
“Roquefort. You can’t get it there. It is not pasteurized. They cannot export it,” Christian said.
“We have blue cheese.”
“Yes. Like gorgonzola. But it is not the same.”
As I tried this green-veined crumbly cheese, with a salty flavor that became smoky, I had to agree. Roquefort has a pedigree. The cheese was recognized by a parliamentary decree in 1411 and was awarded an A.O.C. in 1925. Only cheese made from local raw ewe’s milk and aged in the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the Aveyron département can be called Roquefort.
“How about this one?”
Annie unwrapped a cheese taken from a wooden box. She sniffed the package. Christian sniffed it. It passed the smell test. Camembert, the national cheese of France, is made from cow’s milk. A myth has grown up around it. Pierre Boisard in Camembert, A National Myth, tells the story: in the 18th century, one Madame Harel, who lived in a house in Normandy with her in-laws, devised this cheese. The regional cheese there is Livarot, but Madame Harel used Brie ingredients in a Livarot mold, producing a hybrid success in the Camembert.
There is even a statue raised to Madame Harel, Boisard reports. In 1926, an American physician, Dr. Joseph Knirim, came to the small town of Vimoutiers in Normandy. For months, an ulcer prevented him from eating anything but Camembert. He showed up in the local pharmacist’s office looking for train schedules to the town of Camembert. The pharmacist, who was also the deputy mayor, knew that only an American would think it so easy to reach a remote village. Still, the pharmacist helped the American, who went to lay a wreath on the grave of the woman credited with creating Camembert. Before Dr. Knirim left, he gave the pharmacist twenty dollars to go toward a statue of the founder. Locals pitched in and the statue was raised. This was a boon to the cheese producers because they had only recently been denied their application for an A.O.C.
The I.N.A.O. said Camembert was not truly a regional, but was, in fact, generic. Long story short, camembert never was recognized with an A.O.C. in itself, though the local Camembert de Normandie received one in 1983 after a great deal of wrangling.
“A blue cheese, a goat cheese, a soft cheese — that is the basis of the French cheese course,” Christian explained. “You can have more than one soft cheese.”
And, indeed, we did. I shifted from the Crottin de Chavingol to a Normandy Camembert. I could make a meal on this cheese.
At the end of the meal, my cousin Annie asked me, “Would you like anything else?”
Considering the way that the French were purists about quality ingredients, I wondered if I dare label myself half-French. Would I be the camembert among the Roquefort? Generic. Or worse, Velveeta.
I had yet to prove myself.
“The cheese — the one that stays outside the house” — too pungent to stay inside, it sat in a little cheese cage on the patio table — “the wild cheese, may I have some of that?”
“You are truly French,” Christian said.
Marilyn Moriarty is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. She has published essays in The Antioch Review, The Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, and River Teeth Journal, and is finishing a book about her mother’s activities in the French Resistance during World War II.