To supplement my wine excursion two weekends ago, I decided to take up my “boss” (Laurent) on his offer to go to the countryside on an overnight adventure to pick up the cheeses. He makes this trip south towards to Swiss border every three weeks to pick up stocks in Munster, Morbier, Raclette, Comté, and Mont d’Or.
These cheeses are all under the control of AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), which means that they can only be produced in a certain fashion within a designated region of France (or wherever else in Europe). This is a European-based operation to protect against the globalization of food-production especially for French specialties like wine, cheese, and other gastronomic delicacies. While Laurent could simply order these cheeses from their producers directly, he chooses to do some under-the-table work to avoid taxes (something I have found to be a somewhat normal and expected thing to do in France).
You may have never heard of the cheeses I mentioned above if you live in the US. This is because they are all produced with raw milk, which is often prohibited in the United States. You might be saying, “But I have had raw cheese before!” and this may be true. There are some raw cheeses that you can find, especially in farmer’s markets, that are produced in the US. There are also some imported raw cheeses such as AOP Roquefort (only made in France with ewe milk), but I do not know how these cheeses get in to the country while others do not. This is because certain states (twenty-eight, to be exact) allow the sales of raw milk and cheeses, including imported raw cheeses. Interested in more? Check out a wiki article here.
I had notified Laurent that I was planning to come with him this time, so we planned on meeting at his silver refrigerated van at 12:15, just after lunch on Monday. We each brought an overnight bag because it was a long journey and we would need to spend the night at Laurent’s favorite countryside hotel/restaurant. We set off on time towards the South, passing through the large city of Besançon. We had to go the region south of the region where Nancy is (Meurthe et Moselle), which is called Les Vosges. Les Vosges is more or less the equivalent of a county in the US and it is only here where AOP Munster cheese can be made. Unfortunately, the kind producer had not prepared the cheese in time, so Laurent said we would pick it up the next day on the way home.
Next stop led us through the Haute-Vosges (High Vosges Mountains, which are actually not very high at all. However they were still beautiful), where we picked up some Mont d’Or. It was a quick stop, but I got to see the cows on the farm eating their hay. The standards for AOP are so strict that even the type of cow and the food they eat (during a certain time of the year) must be correct in order for the cheese to be considered, in this case, Mont d’Or. Mont d’Or cheese is not produced in the summer, and therefore the cows usually eat hay during their cheese-making season, not fresh grass growing on the ground.
We continued on to a total of 280 km from Nancy to the next region (equivalent to a state in the US), called Franche-Comté, where we went to the next producer’s fromagerie. While the first two producers were farmers (fermiers) who also produced their own cheese (extremely artisan), the next was a laitier, which means she receives milk and/or young cheeses and then she completes the aging process with a team of workers, which is called affinage. She therefore is considered less artisan, which is why we did not buy the Mont d’Or at her establishment; we saved that until our last stop. The owner gave me a quick tour of all the cheeses in affinage and I was able to follow the process and see (and smell) the differences between the many ages of the same type of cheese.
Our last stop of the day was a bit further, which proved to be the most interesting stop of all. There was an order waiting for us at Napiot Fromagerie, which is the family name. The father (Laurent’s friend) is the owner and he works there with his four children (now all in their 20’s and 30’s) and his wife, along with a team of workers. It was dark when we arrived (around 5 pm), so we waited for the owner, Mr. Napiot, to arrive since he had already gotten off work. Along the main road, the family also runs a souvenir shop filled with food from the region such as special sausages, meats, sirup to flavor water, and of course, their very own cheeses. The shop features a small film that shows the process of cheese-making at their fromagerie (which is a latier) just up the road.
When Mr. Napiot arrived, we picked up the cheeses, put it in the van, and then I got to go on another small private tour of the cheese caves (giant refrigerators), where Comté and Mont d’Or cheeses were maturing. The rooms smelled of ammonia, which is what is a byproduct of the fermentation. We even got to see the packaging process for the Mont d’Or, which involves some manpower (or in this case, womanpower) to operate (see photos). The facility as a whole was absolutely enormous! You may notice that, in the pictures, the rooms are ten to fifteen meters high with shelves of cheese that touch the ceilings. The Comté wheels, one meter or so in diameter, are turned over periodically by a €30,000 robotic machine to ensure that they are aging well.
I met Mr. Napiot’s daughter, Claire, in the office that is attached to the main warehouse. I would say she is in her early- to mid-20’s (although I really couldn’t tell). We chatted a bit while Laurent and her father worked the numbers at the desk. In total, Laurent spent €3,500 on cheese, €2000 of which was at Mr. Napiot’s fromagerie.
Later in the gift shop down the road, we all met up again after all the cheese caves had been closed up tight for the night (there had been some recent burglaries there, so the family was being very cautious). The Napiot family in general was fascinated about where I lived in the US and to hear about the school system there. I explained the main differences and then they graciously gave me some anise liquor to try (from the region) as well as a bag of anise candy (not licorice), the latter of which I really liked (the liquor, not so much– Laurent finished it for me with a huge swig).
With everyone back together, we got in our respective cars and headed to the hotel/restaurant on the side of the road called something to the effect of “Hôtel Fermier” outside the town of Pontarlier. We left our bags in the car to pick up later and continued inside where we convened with the Napiot family for dinner. They are regulars at the restaurant, for Laurent comes every three weeks and does this exact ritual. They have thus become close friends. It is in this way that Laurent serves as an ambassador to Lorraine because he has the chance to travel regularly to villages (as well as through large cities like Besançon) and talk with the farmers and cheese producers. His job, in ways that he may not comprehend, touches the world; although he may not personally take part in exporting these world-famous cheeses, he works with them every day and understands them and their nature the best. In fact, he sees the entire process, from the cows eating the hay in the barn, to the sales receipt he hands his clients in the cheese shop, Laurent and his family live the complete experience and I am lucky to have been invited to take part despite the fact I was absolutely exhausted by this point in the day (it was around 8:00 pm).
During the meal, we talked about the differences between the American and French school systems as well as the economy. The French certainly love their long, 2-hour lunch-hours (during which they often return home to a home-cooked meal), 3-5 weeks of paid vacations in August or July, 35-hour work weeks, and mandatory closed stores on Sundays (and often also Mondays). However, many of them recognize that this relative lack of work may be a contributing factor to the country’s economic difficulty in conjunction with a great host of other problems that are shared by countries around the world. This is why François Hollande (their new president since last May, who many have grown distasteful of) has been pushing for a 40-hour work week in order to “catch up,” so to speak, with the world.
I then changed the subject towards Claire, who sat there quietly the whole time. I asked what her plans were considering her future and she explained that she would take part in maintaining the fromagerie. She then expressed her desire to go to live in LA or NYC for a few months. “To do what?” I asked, and she responded, “To work in a bar or something…”
Her mother’s face wrinkled with disgust, but Clair continued: “I have always wanted to be an actress,” she added. Mrs. Napiot could stand it no longer as she interjected, “What an awful thing to do.”
I tried to soften the situation by adding the fact that everyone has their dreams. Claire agreed, “Yes, mom, it’s just a dream.” I could tell that this was not some silly dream of hers, however. She stared at her glass of wine with unfocused eyes, daydreaming for a few minutes after admitting her childhood fantasies to her parents. For many, coming to America is still a dream, even if it’s to work in a bar and attempt to become an actress. It made such an impression on me that this young woman was expressing this at the table in front of her parents, obviously for the first time in her life, and that this should rouse discomfort for her parents as if she were actually planning on doing it. Of course, to work in a fromagerie all one’s life may not be considered the most glamorous of jobs, and it certainly does not permit for much vacation time (the Napiots explained that they hardly had any time to spend time in their Ski Chalet in Chamonix). I could see why Claire might have such daring dreams as she searched for something different, something that she thought she understood after twenty-some years of watching American films and television series. It really put things into perspective.
The food came to our table. Claire and I had both ordered the house specialty: “The Hot Box” (La Boîte Chaude). It was an entire Mont d’Or cheese in its AOP-manditaed wooden cylindrical box. Along with this heavy, warm box of melted cheese came cutlets of meat, pickled mushrooms, and a healthy green salad. I was in heaven! (See picture for a visual) Meanwhile, Laurent and Mr. Napiot finished off the bottle of Bordeaux red that accompanied our meal as they ate their respective dishes.
After we were done, we said good-bye to the whole family as they searched their pockets for their cigarettes and lighters. Claire removed the cigarette from her lips to give Laurent and I the classic double kiss (bises) that usually take part in the farewell ritual of the French. I then thanked both her parents with a handshake before Laurent and I retrieved our bags in the van to take inside.
We shared a room that night, him in a double bed and me in a twin by the window. Unfortunately, he fell asleep before me and I stayed up for four hours listening to his unbearable snoring. I recounted life, the day, and my 40-page anthropology thesis I’ll be writing next year (a horror that always keeps me up at night, even without the help of someone’s snoring). I finally fell asleep and we awoke the next morning at 6:15, ate downstairs at 6:30, and then hit the road to pick up the Munster by 7 am. It was still dark out when I stepped outside in the cold rain. On the cars, there was a layer of icy snow that had developed overnight, which made the driving especially difficult for Laurent. Meanwhile, I listened to the radio and noted the songs I enjoyed, notably “Je m’voyais déjà” by Charles Aznavour.
By 9:30 AM, we had retraced our tracks back to the Munster farm where three tubs awaited us. Munster is by far the most stinky cheese in my opinion, so it added a unique odor to the already cheese-scented air of the van, even through the insulated wall that separated the passenger and refrigerated compartments. Within good time, we made it back to Nancy, but I was tired as ever and needed a rest. Laurent dropped me off back at Place Carnot where I thanked him many times for all he had done for me and then I walked home for a nap before my afternoon classes.
What an experience, huh? I’ll remember it forever.