Tag Archives: The Life of Emile Zola

A Symphony of Cheeses for “The Life of Emile Zola”

french cheeses

Cheese in all its incarnations is definitely one of Kristy and Koob’s favorite foods, and France is the home of so many delicious cheeses. But with so many different kinds, it can be a bit overwhelming to choose just one. As Charles de Gaulle once famously said of France, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese”.

Emile Zola captured this sentiment in his 1873 novel “Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris)”. Much of the novel focuses on Les Halles which was the central market of Paris for many years. While the book is a social commentary on the struggles of the working class and the “fattening” of the bourgeoisie, it is also filled with beautifully descriptive passages of the amazing variety of food found at Les Halles; the most well-known of which is the “Cheese Symphony” which is excerpted below:

All around them the cheeses were stinking. On the two shelves at the back of the stall were huge blocks of butter: Brittany butter overflowing its baskets; Normandy butter wrapped in cloth, looking like models of bellies on to which a sculptor had thrown some wet rags; other blocks, already cut into and looking like high rocks full of valleys and crevices. […] But for the most part the cheeses stood in piles on the table. There, next to the one-pound packs of butter, a gigantic cantal was spread on leaves of white beet, as though split by blows from an axe; then came a golden Cheshire cheese, a gruyère like a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot, some Dutch cheeses suggesting decapitated heads smeared in dried blood and as hard as skulls – which has earned them the name of ‘death’s heads’. A parmesan added its aromatic tang to the thick, dull smell of the others. […] Then came the strong-smelling cheeses: the mont-d’ors, pale yellow, with a mild sugary smell; the troyes, very thick and bruised at the edges, much stronger, smelling like a damp cellar; the camemberts, suggesting high game; the neufchâtels, the limbourgs, the marolles, the pont-l’évèques, each adding its own shrill note in a phrase that was harsh to the point of nausea; […]
A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained note.

( The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2007, p210-216)

So grab yourself some brie or some roquefort or some camembert (personally, we say the stinkier the better) and enjoy “The Life of Emile Zola” while creating your own cheese symphony.

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