The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the delectable world of French cheese by Kathe Lison



“In the States, the neo-hippie, neo-agrarian movement has made it rather fashionable to quit a high-paying job in the city, buy some herd animals, and start making fromage. Then, of course, you’re supposed to write a book about how going back to the land and making cheese has changed you by putting you back in touch with an ancient rhythm of life.”

I was thinking with my stomach and not my head when I requested this book from its publisher.

It was more “mmm…cheese” as visions of Brie danced in my head, than “hmmm a whole book about cheese? Would I really want to read that?”

So when I actually sat down to start reading The Whole Fromage, I panicked. I was to read a book about cheese! Was I crazy? Well yes, a little, as I had only recently finished a whole book about cod which is not even one of my favourite fishes (pomfret , snapper or mackerel are my fishes of choice, the first and second are wonderful steamed Chinese-style, the second and third are fantastic as sashimi. And on the non-edible side, I have a soft spot for the sunfish or mola, which captured my heart on my first trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium many years ago. Sadly, I learnt after my recent visit last month that it died a few years ago).

So back to the cheese. Oh I love to eat cheese. And in fact my most memorable dish at a very expensive fancy lunch was the cheese course. I’m willing to eat most cheeses except for Port Salut which I really cannot stand.

We always have a block of some kind of cheese in the fridge. As of July 12 when I’m writing this there is some Parmesan, Wisconsin cheddar (for a shepherd’s pie I made), aged English cheddar, and a Brie. Thanks to our nearby Trader Joe’s.

None of this compares to the many different types of cheeses that Kathe Lison details in her book, The Whole Fromage.

Lison has dairy in her genes. She hails from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and her great-great grandfather owned a dairy so, as she puts it, “my progenitors were certainly up to their eyeballs in udders”

But her childhood cheese was mostly industrial cheese (as was mine – mostly in the form of cellophane wrapped slices of Cheesdale Cheese, a New Zealand brand) and her interest in French cheeses only began after a trip to Paris when she bought a book on cheese and learnt that there is an estimated total of 650 different cheeses produced in France:

“There were cheeses with wild mulberry leaves pressed into their tops; cheeses bound with rushes; cheeses covered in ash, in cumin, in raisins, in bits of grape skin; cheeses furred with long hairs of mold; cheeses in the shape of bricks, logs, bells, sheep turds; gigantic round cheese that could crush a poodle; and tiny goat cheeses so tender-looking you wanted to pick them up and soothe them.”

So where most of us would probably just take the book home and shelve it, perhaps occasionally consulting it for a new cheese to try at the local supermarket, Lison takes it upon herself to travel around France, to cheese caves, to a monastery, to farmlands to watch different types of cheese being made, cows being milked, and just to sample all kinds of delectable cheeses, all the while learning about the politics being cheese production, in terms of French government subsidies, American government taxes and so on.

It is a detailed book, I mean, who knew there could be so much behind cheese? The French system of AOCs, for example, which preserves the diversity of French food products like cheese, actually makes them less diverse. Each producer makes a cheese differently, using their own technique, but an AOC cheese cannot be ‘too diverse’ and thus there is a need for ‘harmonisation’ of techniques. Some sections were perhaps a little too detailed for me, but there were plenty of fascinating cheese moments, like Camembert, a favourite cheese of mine, started out with a blue-gray and gray-green rind, because of the mould strain. But scientists managed to isolate a white spore strain, leaving us with that cheese “as white as the bosom of a pure Norman maid”.

And we mustn’t forget the taste of the cheeses themselves:

“Later that evening, I would sit in my room with one of Monique’s cabécous warm in my palm. It was pale – the pate of a chèvre is lighter in colour than a cow’s-milk cheese because goats convert more carotene (which, as you may recall from middle school science class, is what makes carrots orange) to vitamin A – and it was lovely. In my hand it felt sort of fleshy, almost alive, and when I squeezed it, the firmer pate slid about in the little pouch made by the croute. I cut it open with my Swiss army knife, and a layer of cream oozed about the edges. When I put my nose down to it and sniffed, it smelled heavenly, like the moist hay of the goat barn. Then I cut a morsel and placed it on my tongue. The taste was grassy and lemony, almost to the point of being tangy. There was salt, too, and a pleasant, musky aftertaste. It was the taste of Poutignac, of the farmhouse in the early morning light, of the polychromatic goats in the barn, of wildflowers like those Monique had hand-painted onto the tiles in my little bathroom, carefully writing their Latin names – Viola odorata or Primula veris – underneath each picture. The cheese seemed almost a part of Monique herself.”

Ok I have to go cut myself a slice of Brie now. It will not be as spectacular but it will have to do.

I received a copy of this book for review from Crown Publishing’s imprint Broadway Books. 

kathelisonA native of Wisconsin, “America’s Dairyland,” Kathe Lison has a long-reaching history with cheese. Her maternal grandfather kept and milked a dozen Holsteins on a 60-acre farm north of Green Bay, and her great, great-grandfather owned a diary. 

Beyond her Cheesehead lineage, Kathe holds an M.A. in literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She is an award winning essayist whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals and recently won An Emerging Artist Grant from the Utah Arts Council. One of her essays has been cited as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2006. 

A devoted traveler, in addition to the time she has spent in France, Kathe has lived in China, spent a month living with a family in Morocco, and traveled in Vietnam.


    1. Thanks for stopping by my blog, Kathe! Your book made me curious about the various types of cheese I’ve never heard/tried before. Here’s to more cheese tastings!


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