By Emily Paster
I grew up in Washington DC slightly obsessed with the National Mall — you know, that long, grassy rectangle surrounded by monuments and museums. The place where Washingtonians gather for fireworks on the Fourth of July. My parents never wanted to take us there, claiming that there was too much traffic and too little parking. Once I became a teenager and started driving, however, I was no longer subject to my parents' perfectly rational prejudice against this most touristy area of our city. So one summer day, my best friend Tracy and I decided to have a picnic on the Mall. We spent the day preparing what we thought was the perfect picnic fare: bread, cheese, fresh fruit and cookies. Although we were both inexperienced cooks, we spent hours slaving away over a recipe for a quiche with blue cheese that my mother had suggested to us. And by some miracle, the quiche actually came out okay.
Tracy and I drove down to the Mall and searched for ages for parking. Then we lugged our picnic basket and blanket to the area around the Washington Monument and spread out. Somehow the freedom of being downtown without adult supervision was not as magical as we had anticipated. Picnicking on the Mall was not that different from picnicking at any of the parks near our houses. The picnic was pretty good though. You can't go wrong with bread and cheese and grapes. As for our precious quiche, the one we had slaved over for hours? Tracy and I each took a bite and then confessed to one another that we didn't like blue cheese all that much. Why had we made it then? In our inexperience, we didn't realize that we could alter the recipe or that the strong flavor of the blue cheese would dominate the quiche.
Some years later I found myself studying abroad in Paris and living with a proper French family who ended every dinner with a cheese plate. By then I has learned to appreciate the strong, earthy flavor of blue cheese, especially French blues like Rocquefort. My favorite way to eat Rocquefort was in a tartine, an open-faced sandwich on a baguette spread with butter. That is still my favorite way to eat blue cheese to this day. I had always thought that my love of a Rocquefort tartine was a sign of my culinary sophistication, until I read The Whole Fromageby Kathe Lison. Lison, who traveled around France to learn more about that country's tradition of artisanal cheese, dedicates a chapter of her book to exploring the myths and realities behind French blue cheese and its most familiar variety, Rocquefort. I was chagrined to learn that the French believe that only unsophisticated eaters — those who cannot handle the strong character of blue cheese — dilute its flavor by combining it with butter. And here I thought that two delicious things were better than one.
Shortly after reading The Whole Fromage, I spend some time browsing the cheese counter at my local Whole Foods. I made a special effort to look for cheeses marked AOC, which stands for appellation d'origine contrôlée. Rocquefort was actually the first French product to receive the AOC label, which specifies that a product must be made in a certain region and that those who make it adhere to traditional methods. I treated myself to several of these traditional cheeses, including a blue. I enjoyed several happy lunch hours eating nothing but bread and cheese and fruit, reliving my student days in Paris. While I can certainly tolerate blue cheese on its own these days, I still am partial to a slice of baguette spread with delicious, European butter and a hefty smear of moldy blue.
This post was inspired by The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison, who traveled to France in search of its artisanal cheeses. Join From Left to Write, an online book club, as we discuss The Whole Fromage. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.