I spent a few years of my life (not my most enjoyable years, either, by the way) not being able to properly process cheese or most other dairy products.  Therefore, I spent a long time ordering pizzas without cheese, thereby confounding the person on the other end of the phone taking my order, not to mention entertaining those who saw me eat what was essentially bread and ketchup (with a little Canadian bacon for good measure).

However, by the time that I went on first real vacation in almost eight years – to Paris – I was fortunate enough to have overcome that hindrance and once again be able to enjoy, at least in moderation dairy products, from yoghurt to milk to cheese.

Now, I know, everyone knows that the French love and know their cheese.  I mean, really know their cheese.  In fact, this post was inspired by a book that I recently read on a woman from Wisconsin who, after my own heart, travelled all over France indulging in the still-traditionally-made cheeses of rural France.  This is a country that boasts no fewer than 300 types of cheese by most counts, and perhaps twice that many.

I was a little hesitant at first, I admit.  i had only recently been able to truly eat cheese itself without a lot of, let’s just say, digestive discomfort.  So, as you can imagine, I didn’t want to over-reach what my body might be able to handle.  At least, not the first time.  But like they say about drugs, it’s the first time that can really hook you for life.  And in my case, not only did it hook me, but it ruined me at the same time.

As most other Americans, I grew up eating cheese.  In fact, I remember many times when I would ask my mother for a snack after school or before bed and she would just cut a huge chunk of cheese off of a larger block and I would gnaw away on it for a while.  Happily indulging in it.  I also ate my fair share of grilled cheese sandwiches, made with the ubiquitous American cheese slices that melted so perfectly (or Velveeta wedges, if we were really good and Mom had remembered to buy those large blocks of creamy, salty goodness).  Little did I know, though, that there was a whole other world of cheese out there.  Real cheese.  Cheese that transcends the bland, dry “Mexican blend” stuff that is so familiar in the US.

The first night in the city, I discovered that there was a Fromagerie just a few dozen meters from my hotel.  I had walked by it earlier in the day, without noticing it, since it was closed and in the shadows.  However, by nightfall, as I walked by again, on the way back to my temporary home for the week, I strolled passed it and noticed the light on and saw an amazing sight:  Shelf after shelf of cheese!  Like I had never seen before in my life!  There are no such places in the US.  No stores where you can walk in and be overwhelmed by the smells of the salty, briny, rich cheeses that reside therein.

This was an epiphany.  I stepped through the door to the small (the size of a smaller-than-average bedroom) shop, populated by an older woman and the proprietor; a lovely middle-aged gentleman who didn’t speak more than a few words of English, which was actually far more than the amount of French that I spoke.

I think that I literally stepped in and immediately closed my eyes to take in the smells.  It was almost overpowering, but in the most blessed way.  And the cheeses!  from bright white to deep orange; from round wheels to bricks and slices; from stinky to tangy and from creamy and smooth to crumbly and bleu.  I couldn’t believe my nostrils or my eyes.  I didn’t know where to start, so I walked up to the owner and with a few hand gestures managed to purchase a small chunk of what turned out to be my favorite, a chevre.  Goat cheese.  Briny, a little on the off-tasting side (but in all the right ways) and perfect for spreading on a fresh baguette (which I happened to have just purchased from the local bakery down the block).  I took the chunk and the bread home and spent a few, very contented minutes just savoring the cheese and the crusty, flaky-crusted bread while watching the French version of some news show.

For the next nine days, I managed to eat my way through nearly every single type of cheese that they had.  I made it a routine.  I would stop by the boulangerie on my way home for the evening and pick up a loaf of baguette.  Did it matter that it was from the morning and all French people buy their bread in the morning, for maximum freshness?  Nope.  We Americans couldn’t make bread this good if we tried.  And we have.  Let’s just say that it’s not our strong point.

I tried every type that I could identify and many others that I couldn’t and still couldn’t to this day.  Brie, Camanbert, chevre; cow, goat and sheep cheese.  Oozey, gooey cheese.  Sharp, hard, sliced cheese.  I would buy a few ounces of each and spread them on a whole baguette so that every few bites were a flavor of a new cheese.  And I only ate the same one twice.  It was that first one, from the first night, that I loved the most.  Every night, therefore, I experienced just a little bit of Heaven on Earth.  There is just something about that simple combination of foods that makes you realize that it’s the little things in life that can make you happy.  That make you forget the smoking people in the streets; the dog poo on the footpaths; the closed museums that you spent ages trying to find.  It just makes like worth living just a little bit more.

And you can’t get those cheeses here in the US.  Why?  They are not pasteurized.  None of the ones that I tried were.  And now I lament that.  I lament that I can’t go into a shop, a supermarket or anywhere and get cheese like that here.  I try it sometimes; with mixed results.  We can get decent Danish brie, but truly, it’s nothing like what I had in Paris, and I miss it.  I dream of it.  Sometimes, I think that I can still taste it, if I think and focus hard enough.

But then, as I always say; always leave something to come back for.  I feel like taking another trip to France.