“What do you mean, you don’t eat cheese?”
The man standing slack-jawed before me was beyond incredulous. How could such a thing be possible? This was France, after all, and even though I wasn’t actually French, well… this was France!
My family had been living in Bordeaux for perhaps six months when I shattered Jean-Luc’s faith in a good and just society. My husband (who shall henceforth be known as Chef Boyardee – for his skill in the kitchen, not for his physique) had taken to French life as though he’d been born to it. He loved the cobbled streets, the slower pace, the way the French argued intensely about politics. He loved living a ten-minute walk away from Stade Chaban-Delmas, where he watched his beloved Girondins play football. And above all, he loved the food.
Me, not so much.
Jean-Luc, Chef Boyardee’s friend and our host for the day, strained to comprehend a world in which it was possible not to like cheese. “You do drink wine?” he asked anxiously, and I hastened to assure him that yes, I’d been known to indulge on occasion. He smiled weakly, but it was clear my rejection of the mighty fromage had shaken him to his very core.
When I said I didn’t like cheese, I wasn’t being strictly accurate. I quite like a razor-thin slice of emmenthal on a sandwich, for example. And if it were possible to mainline pizza, I’d have been permanently hooked up a long time ago. But I don’t like cheese as a solo act. I don’t ooh and aah when the cheese platter comes around; I recoil. It’s made for some très awkward moments in my life amongst the French, I can tell you.
After a whispered and somewhat panicky exchange, Jean-Luc and his lovely wife Hélène decided that since this was a moral failing on my part, they were prepared not just to forgive, but to rehabilitate. Ignoring my protests that I was undeserving of their magnanimity, they hustled me with evangelical zeal to le marché.
The cheese section of the Sunday market was my worst nightmare. The epic stench of moldy cheeses – deliberately moldy, if you can believe it – was so noxious I was forced to breathe through my ears. And the public humiliation of being trotted out like some sort of gastronomic troglodyte was almost as bad.
First there was an animated conversation between Jean-Luc and the cheese lady, complete with spirited gesturing in my direction and much tongue clucking on her part. I hung my head, suitably ashamed for polluting this noble country with my food perversions. Then came la dégustation – the tasting – during which politeness compelled me to choke down far too many morsels of curdled milk, and pride compelled me to keep them down.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, we found a cheese that was so mild, it tasted like…nothing. It was creamy on the tongue, but had absolutely zero taste. It was fromage perfection.
Jean-Luc was elated, slapping Chef Boyardee on the back in triumph before slipping the Holy Grail into his wife’s chic straw pannier. His mood remained buoyant all through dinner, rising to a peak just as Hélène advanced on the table with the cheese plate. Taking it from her well-manicured hands, he presented it to me with a flourish.
“Un peu de fromage, madame?” he asked, gesturing subtly toward the least offensive wedge on the plate.
“Merci, monsieur,” I replied graciously. I took a generous blob of the most non-cheesy cheese known to humankind, along with a couple of adorable-looking “toasts,” and settled in for the ritual that had long been denied me. Jean-Luc beamed benevolently as he topped up my glass.
“Hey, look at me,” I said happily to Chef Boyardee. “I’m eatin’ cheese here!”
It took me a few minutes to fully grasp the significance of what was happening. Here I was, sitting in the elegant French home of an elegant French couple. I’d spoken en français throughout the day, with little difficulty. I’d eaten a simple but delicious French meal, and was now nibbling on cheese and drinking a glass of the wonderfully dry Champagne that I’d never heard of but was stocked by the caseload in my host’s wine cellar.
Okay, so I still wasn’t French. But for the first time, I felt as though I could make a go of this living in France thing. I didn’t want to jinx it, though, so I kept schtum about my aversion to seafood. I’d never have survived a visit to the fish market.