Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison: A Review

When I saw the subtitle to this book, 'Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese', I knew I had to read it. I mean, if there's ever a subject that's going to keep me engaged for the length of a book, it's cheese. 


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The book was easy to lose yourself in - a memoir really, of one person's travels around France, finding out how French cheese is made, who makes it and the history of the various cheeses. At times I thought the words flowed beautifully off the page and really set the scene. For example, in the part where she talks about the birth of Camembert, we get this: 'a priest runs through rain-streaked groves of oak trees in the Norman countryside. He spies the lit windows of a manor house. A young woman answers his knock.' I felt like I could have been there. 

The history of French cheese is full of intrigue, scandal and romance. I didn't know that Roquefort came into being because a young shepherd left his curds and bread lunch behind a rock to pursue his love interest, returning months later to find the cheese streaked with mould. I also didn't know that Camembert has its own idol - Marie Harel, who was taught the secrets of making the cheese by a priest in return for her allowing him somewhere to stay while he was on the run. But it was the description of 'cheese espionage' that I loved, the efforts made by rival cheesemakers to find out how to make Camembert: 'Picture the rosy-cheeked lass with a bit of straw stuck to an exposed thigh being asked between furtive caresses how long she rennets her curd. Picture her blinking at her lover in consternation.' 

Along with the characters (which Kathe seems to bring to life through the pages), the dark caves, cheese-nibbling bugs and cheese knights (yes, really) she does also address some more serious issues. There's some thought-provoking over whether the traditional art of cheesemaking can continue for much longer, in an age where it's convenience and budget prices that earn manufacturers brownie points. She talks about the rules and regulations cheesemakers have to go through to ensure their cheese is protected and given AOC status, and why this was even necessary in the first place. And then there are battles with governments and health authorities over whether some varieties of cheese, with their stinky centres and critter-nibbled rinds are actually safe to eat. 

The only thing I would like to have seen more of in the book are pictures (I downloaded the Kindle edition). The descriptions were good, but to have been able to flick through to a page showing me the various cheeses that aren't so well-known, like Banon for example, would have been useful. The same goes for the cheesemakers themselves or photographs of the cheesemaking process. This is a small niggle though really, as the writing portrays enough; it would have just been the icing on the cake. 

Another great thing is that at the back of the book the author gives you two sections: one, a list of the reputable cheese shops in Paris, along with descriptions of the shop, the types of cheese they stock and how friendly the owners are. And the second section gives you a list of phrases that are useful when talking about cheese in France, for example affinage (the amount of time a cheese is aged) and d├ęgustation (a cheese or wine tasting). 

For me, this was a great book that delved into the lively world of French cheese. The history of the cheeses and their regions, the influence of royalty and other leaders on the success of certain cheeses and also the characters behind each one of them. If you want to find out more about French cheese and how it's made, then this is a great - and entertaining - place to start. 

The Whole Fromage is published by Crown Publishing, June 2013. 

ETA: The author of the book, Kathe Lison, commented on this post to say that she's set up a Facebook Page where you can actually see the photos she took on her travels to France. Check them out at www.facebook.com/TheWholeFromage 

4 comments:

  1. Hello~thanks for the lovely review! I, too, wish there could have been pictures in the book, but it just wasn't possible. As an alternative, I've been posting snapshots I took while researching on the book's Facebook page: www.facebook/TheWholeFromage. They're organized by chapter. I'm continuing to add more all the time (I literally have thousands) and so if you "like" the page you'll get updates.

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  2. Of course! And there's actually also a Pinterest page that has more professional photos of a lot of the cheeses (most of the time when I was taking photos I was just snapping them off fast so I could reference them later, and as a result, they're often blurry). Anyway. Here's the Pinterest page, if you're interested: pinterest.com/thewholefromage/. Enjoy!

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  3. Hi Jo, Carole's Chatter is collecting posts about Favourite Travel Books. This looks like a good one. It would be super if you linked it in. This is the link - Your Favourite Travel Books There are quite a few good links already. I hope to see you soon. Cheers

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