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Would you like some Fourme d'Ambert with that St-Pourçain?

Before I left for Grenoble, I would tell people I was going to live in France for a year, and they would inform me that I was going to return full of valuable knowledge about wine and cheese.

I did eat some cheese and drink some wine during the year, but not huge amounts of either. I never knew what I was eating or drinking because it was whatever was in the bottle or the cheese box at my host family's house, and it didn't make much difference to me. I found a cheese or two that I liked and stuck with them and refused all of my host family's attempts to get me drunk at family gatherings.

I came back to the United States and was grilled about my wine and cheese experiences by all the people who'd told me I'd be an expert. "I dunno," I'd say, "I like Double Crème. And Boursin. I think I tried some other stuff and it was okay. Wine? I had some rosé once that was okay. I guess I like that." I think they were disappointed.

When I went to Vichy, I assumed it would be the same. Fortunately, I was just on the edge of France's Cheese Plate (sort of like the American Bread Basket... I'm trying to be poetic here. Shut up) and in the company of someone who could teach me how to appreciate that fact: Stefan. Stefan was the German assistant at Presles, and was considered by many - French and foreign - to be more French than the French. He was fiercely regionalistic, believing that you should support your region first, then your country, and then start importing things. If you wanted to drive Stefan nuts, you could search out a bottle of Australian wine to bring to one of the Presles parties.

Upon being assigned to Presles, Stefan adopted l'Auvergne as his own. Stefan loved Auvergne and he loved food and his enthusiasm spread throughout the Vichy assistanat. We learned about all of the major cheeses of the area, as well as some of the minor ones. There was always a bout de St-Nectaire (a semi-hard cheese) in the cheese box for Stefan and we came to love Cantal (a cheddar-like cheese) and Bleu d'Auvergne (a blue cheese) as well.

I think Stefan distrusted me at the beginning of the year because I always refused wine. What kind of weird teetotaling American was I? Really, I didn't like the taste of wine, so I didn't take any. After a while, I realized I should at least try what they were serving, so I would take a little dribble. Stefan still looked askance. By doing this, I learned what I liked and what I didn't and built my way up to a whole glass (although no more, because Stefan would probably look even more askance at a weird American who could get drunk on a glass of wine).

Now that I'm back in the US, I miss having a bottle of wine open at all times. If I want some, I have to open it for myself or polish off a bottle split three ways. I miss Cantal and Bleu d'Auvergne, cheap and easy to find in the French supermarkets but rarer and more expensive here. I miss prepackaged shredded emmental. I'm still no expert, but I'm happy that I can finally enjoy wine and am willing to eat exotic and smelly cheeses. Danke schön, Stefan!

srah - Friday, 8 August 2003 - 10:17 AM
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Comments (6)

gravatar Jez - August 8, 2003 - 11:12 AM -

I always buy Spanish wine (when I find it available), as it is far superior to French wine. Never really got into the cheeses, except I do like a bit of goat's cheese from the Loire Valley, and Brie (but the Brie has to be reeeeaaaalllyy smelly and runny for it to be good).

gravatar srah - August 8, 2003 - 11:20 AM -

I highly recommend a Basque ewe's-milk cheese called Ossau d'Iraty (I think that's it) that I've discovered at our local Cheese Extravaganza (I think of it that way because it's more than just a cheese shop).

I bought four cheeses for Cheryl's party, excited that I would get to eat the leftovers, then my grandma stole that one!

gravatar katie - August 8, 2003 - 12:21 PM -

I was always a fan of Beaufort. My mom had a big chunk imported at the local co-op one year as a Christmas present to me. :)

I, too, had the disappointing and annoying experience of coming home to a bunch of people who expected me to expound on cheese, wine, and French hygiene. They were dismayed and not a little slighted when I told them that I knew my cheeses better by sight than by name, that I only had wine once in a while, and that the French do indeed shower and shave.

gravatar jamelah - August 8, 2003 - 12:45 PM -

though i didn't go to france, i went to italy, and everyone was really excited that i was going to learn a lot about food and wine. they also thought i would spend my entire time being serenaded by a gondolier while he rowed me across the venetian canals. and when i came home to tell my stories, it was nothing but disappointment.

gravatar katie - August 8, 2003 - 2:13 PM -

Yes, everyone thought I would be romanced under the Eiffel Tower by some gorgeous frenchman. Riiiiight.

gravatar srah - August 8, 2003 - 2:18 PM -

Or by an African immigrant romancing you in order to get you to buy a wind-up bird.

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