I anthropomorphize my cheese.
L’Explorateur, the French triple crème that, in the words of my father, is everything Saint Andre strives to be, is fittingly adventurous, bold and assertive, a dashing, daring, type-A personality overachiever with the acerbic bravado of the stereotyped Frenchmen who make it. Saint Andre’s milky white pâté and thin, comparatively mild white mold rind is delicious yet nonconfrontational, the sweet yet underachieving second child. Camembert is the third cousin, twice removed, from our triple crème family. She’s famously famous yet of merely fair repute with Americans — it’s a knockoff problem. Nearly all Camembert sold in this country uses pasteurized milk, not raw, a direct affront to the indefatigable traditions of Normandy and a violation of the strict stipulations of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Our Camembert isn’t “the real” Camembert. We’ve been duped, and Camembert herself feels cheated, ripped off and violated. She’s Sean Connery as James Bond — after years of grand performances, in waltz Lazenby, Moore and Dalton to screw things up. She commiserates with record companies and despises China’s copyright infringements.
I met Tomme when I was young. Chevy and I became acquaintances soon after. Tomme grew tired of his given name, Tom, and added an m and an e in high school to boost his sex appeal. It’s pronounced like Tom, just with a long o. He’s a split personality, yet all facets are pressed and somewhat dry — living in the shadow of his “hip” brother, Chevy, depresses his mood. Tomme is well rounded, however: He’s heady, a thinker with a great body to boot, yet lacks the charm and tangy “oh là là” of his big bro. Ostentatious and self-serving, Chevy is white, columnar and barrel-chested, yet still the ladies’ man. “Oh Chevy, you’re so yummy, yet easy on the body,” they swoon together. And Chevy eats it up, on a salad, no less.
Kazuko Masui & Tomoko Yamada set and cured my permanent love of cheese. Their canonical gastronomic contribution “French Cheeses: The Visual Guide to More Than 350 Cheeses from Every Region of France,” with contributions from the great French master chef Joel Robuchon, is ethereal. I met my match within this tome of tomme: el Crusto. El Crusto was more than mere cheese, it is archeological, a cheese so old, so well aged, so brown, dry and indeed “crusty” that it may well have smoked two packs a day in its youth. I never thought I’d try it, undoubtedly it isn’t available in this country — and then I went to France.
The restaurant’s pedigree was well-established — my roast pork belly was melt-in-your-mouth scrumptious, what with its 3-inch band of fat stretched around a two-inch round medallion of meat. Dessert came and the cheese plate sang my heart song. The waiter wheeled two massive carts laden with specimens from all over France: the goat, sheep and cow, the fresh and aged, covered in ash, leaves and mold. And there, in the back row, he sat: el Crusto, around which, I kid you absolutely not, buzzed three or four flies, drawn to its potent lactic decay. Clint Eastwood flashed before my eyes while el Crusto stared me down, his six shooters shifting gently in the breeze. “Go ahead — make my day.” I crunched through his pocked, burnt caramel brown skin. More bark than bite, el Crusto wasn’t Clint but rather the high school jock whose rough exterior conceals something gentle and insecure. I saw the cheese that he’d always wanted, but never knew, how to be.