There is no Whole Foods store on this side of the river. Ditto that for Trader Joe’s. Mind you there are two of each in Burque Flats (Albuquerque). If we’re doing the store per metro population, a city of 650K—Albuquerque‑gets duplicates while Rio Rancho with a population of over 300K merits zilch. Go figure. No surprise that whenever I venture across the river for any reason, I usually make a stop at Whole Foods so I can pay the steep prices for protein. With protein, quality matters.
During my last shopping trip to Whole Foods, one of the drive-by, toss-in-the-cart-without-stopping purchases was the above package of sliced cheese labeled “Swiss.” By the way, it’s the same technique I use for buying Pringles at Target—the technique where you don’t stop the cart and nab the Pringles as you go by. But lately I’ve settled into using cheese slices for sandwiches. It’s among the many food concessions since moving back behind the adobe curtain. Likewise, we are eating more frozen food than ever before. Hence the remark about quality protein.
As for the package of cheese slices, on closer examination the fine print on the front said “imported from Switzerland.” So at least it had that going for it. The cheese itself was decent in that it tasted similar to other actual Swiss cheeses of quality like Emmentaler, which cheese experts describe as “nutty.” To me, it just tastes like cheese. Or grown up cheese, I should say. That’s because Swiss cheese with any flavor to it is an acquired taste, at least for kids. Tasting it for the first time—even the mass produced stuff—may seem like alien nation. It’s as remote from the bricks of yellow-orange Longhorn Cheddar as the Dog Star.
Unless you grow up in a household that makes exotic foodstuffs the norm, you probably won’t embrace anything cheese-wise other than Kraft singles and the previously mentioned Longhorn until early adulthood. Or around the same time that spicy Dijon mustard (not actually from Dijon), garlic, and espresso also cross your radar. All delightful and very grownup things.
Back to cheese and a recent river cruise I took in France. Specifically, the day we were docked in Lyon. It was a Monday. It also happened to be a holiday, la fête de la Victoire or le jour de la liberation. Literally WWII Victory Day; the anniversary of when Charles de Gaulle announced the end of World War II in France on May 8, 1945. No surprise that traffic was a fraction of what it usually was. The first stop that morning for my compadres—Paul and Margaret—and me was the Paul Bocuse Market. Chef Bocuse has long been a legend in Lyon and environs. Although Paris gets all the glam and cred, Lyon is known even in France as the food center of the country. And restaurant Paul Bocuse has crested atop three-star Michelin establishments for decades, even after the great chef passed away in 2018.
Over 80% of the vendors at the market had taken the day off, it being a holiday. What few who chose to open were more than worth the price of admission—which was free. Missing were the florists and produce. In place were several butchers and fromageries. And it’s with the latter that I’m landing the plane and pausing to make a point. In short, cheese is important in France. Really important. Every region, however small or large, has its own cheese(s) made from the milk of local cows, sheep, or goats. More than a few have taken their place in the global cheese pantheon. Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, and Chèvre, just to name a few. Mind you there are easily hundreds more as witnessed by the sheer number of cheeses on display at more than one fromagerie at the market that day. In particular, one vendor easily had over 120 cheeses immaculately displayed, a fraction of which can be seen in the photo below.
We stopped and admired the sumptuous display. Then Margaret chatted at length in French with the young woman who was the fromagère. Her first question was when we would be enjoying the cheeses. As it turns out, timing in the cheese world—as with many other things—is everything. Margaret informed mademoiselle fromagère that we would be enjoying one of the cheeses that evening with another the following day and a third cheese the day after. With that information, a selection of cheeses was made and then immaculately wrapped in special paper and tied up decoratively with bits of ribbon. Finally, all were carefully placed a small attractive tote bag.
After a walk through the botanical gardens we made our way back towards the river and our lunch destination, a bistro called Daniel & Denise. We arrived just at noon and were seated at a four top with large pieces of white butcher paper atop red and white checkered table cloths. In no time we were greeted by our waiter who was an affable young man. Between Margaret’s French and his fractured English, the twain did meet. Paul ordered braised beef ribs, Margaret opted for sauteed calf’s liver, and I chose chicken tournedos with morel sauce. We went local with the wine. A bottle of cru Beaujolais—a Fleurie under the restaurant’s label. It was delicious and perfect with the meal.
After a bit of a wait, the entrees appeared. As affable young waiter guy placed my plate, I got a waft of intense mushroom, cream, and chicken. It was precisely at this moment when I was glad—for once—I was on a statin. God knows how much butter and cream were involved just in the sauce. It probably bordered on dark matter. Then the sides came. A dynamic duo of the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had with incredible potatoes, twice fried in goose fat. There must have been at least three different cheeses in the mac and cheese and all of them in the triple cream realm. Not only was it rich beyond imagination, but the flavor was amazing, reminding me of mademoiselle fromagère and her amazing selection of cheeses in the market earlier that morning.
Later after getting back to the ship, I ran into Margaret leaving her cabin with the cheese tote bag in tow. “They’re too strong to keep in the room,” she said, shaking her head. I nodded and immediately glanced off a force field of raw cheeseness redolent of a lockeroom crossed with a dairy. Margaret took the cheeses to the kitchen for proper storage with a request for one of them to be served to us that night at the end of dinner.
That evening’s cheese turned out to be a chevre made from raw goat’s milk. After entrées were cleared away that night at dinner, our server brought us the small wheel of chevre with some sliced baguette. It was easily the best goat cheese I’ve ever had. It was also the most feral goat cheese I’ve ever had with a punget rind and creamy interior that was a solid “10” on the goat scale. I’d never had a goat cheese like it. And unless I’m in France, I never will again.
Raw milk cheeses are an exotic creature in the U.S. because the dairy and cheese industries are heavily regulated. The most contentious law is the FDA-mandated pasteurization of all milk products for consumption that was passed in 1987. Per the law, all milk must be heated to 145°F (63°C) for at least 30 minutes or at least 161°F (72°C) for 15 seconds. The idea being to rid the milk of pathogenic bacteria making it safe to consume. It also kills enzymes and bacteria that cause spoiling giving the product a longer shelf life.
At the time—almost 40 years ago—the judge in the case ruled that unpasteurized milk was unsafe and banned the shipment of any raw milk with the exception of cheese provided it had been aged a minimum of 60 days and clearly labeled as unpasteurized. However, there was a catch. Many of the most famous raw milk cheeses like Camembert, Roquefort, and Brie won’t stay fresh on the shelf for more than 10 days, meaning they couldn’t survive the legally required period of aging. To add insult to injury, in 2014 the FDA lowered the limit of nontoxigenic E. coli, which is a harmless form of the bacteria found in our digestive tract, from 100 MPN (most probable number) to 10 MPN, meaning that even small levels can prevent cheeses from being imported into the U.S.
The intent behind the pasteurization law sought to prevent people from being poisoned by bacteria-tainted milk and cheese. However, it should also be noted that less than 2,000 cases of illness from consuming raw milk and dairy products were reported in the U.S. between 1993 and 2012. As for the other two cheeses from the Bocuse Market, we enjoyed one with lunch the next day and the last with the penultimate dinner the night after. Both were rich, creamy, decadent, and frankly on the ripe side. Like attractive but unwashed people. Beyond the unkempt part, the two were also completely delicious, unlike any domestic cheeses I’ve ever tasted.
Afterwards, I wondered if all real cheeses—as in cheeses made from raw milk—tasted this way. As in rich and creamy but slightly funky and smelly. In which, case had all my cheese experiences in the US been neutered because of the laws? I think you know the answer. I then wondered if tasting this kind of cheese would always be uniquely French experience, or at the very least European. That is until the Byzantine FDA laws changed. I decided I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of outstanding domestic cheeses to choose from including raw milk cheeses. But the latter must be aged 60 days as per the law. In the end, context in cheese matters as with everything else in life. Which means I’ll probably still swipe right for Swiss singles the next time I’m at Whole Foods. But I’ll make sure not to stop the cart. After all, rules are rules.