Feb. 8, 2010
"Cheese is the collective memory of France," a cheesemaker once remarked, according to Burkhard Bilger in his essay about cheese called "Raw Faith," published in 2002 in The New Yorker. It does seem as if all the best cheeses have a French connection or name -- Brie, Camembert, etcetera. But France is not the only producer of great cheese.
Did you know that the U.S. has long produced more cheese than any other country in the world? -- Eight and a half BILLION pounds in 2001, if you can fathom that!
Much of Bilger's essay focuses on Mother Noella Marcellino, "the cheese nun," an American expert on the subject. A PhD. in microbiology, Mother Noella has lived as a cloistered nun for more than 30 years; occasionally, she has been permitted to travel to do research on the subject of cheese.
While studying the history of French cheese caves in the 1990s, Mother Noella decided to focus on one particular mold -- Geotrichum candidum, "the wrinkly white mold that encases some of the greatest French cheeses." She makes cheese in a Benedictine cloister, the Abbey of Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
There is something sacred about cheese. Learning to both savor and appreciate it in its various forms has become a kind of quest of mine these past 20 years that I've been a vegetarian. It's the meat in my diet and the centerpiece of my favorite hors d'oeuvres and main meals, although I don't eat it all that often -- Favorite things remain favorite because they are not over experienced.
I first became aware of cheese when we moved to the United States and I encountered Velveeta. I was eight, and loved to rip the thick blue foil of the processed cheese package, and plunge my fingers into the soft, gooey, orange, made-for-kids mass, then suck it off my fingers. It was my favorite snack then. Fortunately, my tastes have evolved.
I've always loved soft cheeses-- therefore, Brie and Champignon. There is very little to say that's not delightful about the taste and sensation of these mushroomy cheeses, which I have enjoyed alone, on celery and carrot sticks, crackers, and best of all, on thin slices of fresh, crusty bread. Brie is synonymous with abundance, romance, parties. I can never get enough.
After Brie and Champignon is the semi-soft, fresh Mozzarella, or "motzarelle," as the folks in Jersey say. Try this for a delectable brunch -- sliced mozzarella and fresh tomatoes in a bowl of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, tamari, a dash of pepper, and basil leaves from the backyard, then scoop onto French bread.
Cheese lovers can satisfy their passion on the subject on the Web site, fromages.com. Is there a school for cheese lovers? Yes -- The Cheese School of San Francisco. It's one of a kind!