This is the fourth book in the National Geographic Directions series that I’ve read. If you haven’t seen any of these yet you’re in for a treat. Jamaica Kincaid writes about Nepal, Jan Morris about Wales, Louise Erdrich about books and islands in Ojibwe County, and here, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about his journeys in Oaxaca.
For Sacks is a member of the American Fern Society (AFS), which has been around since the 1890s.
Most of the thirty people on the Oaxaca tour are members of the AFS.
They are quite a different breed of tourist.
“Luis – our tour guide for the next week – points out the innumerable churches and the confines of the old colonial city. No one pays the least attention.”
Instead they are scanning the roadside for ferns or the skies for birds.
Sacks writes a good travel journal. He throws in some facts about ferns and other plant life, but not too much that it would throw off those with black thumbs (i.e. me). For instance, his own fascination with ferns:
“Ferns delighted me with their curlicues, their croziers, their Victorian quality (not unlike the grilled antimacassars and lacy curtains in our house). But at a deeper level, they filled me with wonder because they were of such ancient origin. All of the coal that heated our home, my mother told me, was essentially composed of ferns or other primitive plants, greatly compressed, and one could sometimes find their fossils by splitting coal balls. Ferns had survived, with little change, for a third of a billion years. Other creatures, like dinosaurs, had done and gone, but ferns, seemingly so frail and vulnerable, had survived all the vicissitudes, all the extinctions the earth had known. My sense of a prehistoric world, of immense spans of time, was first simulated by ferns and fossil ferns.”
It intrigues me, this interest in ferns. A passion for a plant that leads them to hike and travel and observe.
I wonder what it would be like to have a love for plants. I so very admire people with green thumbs, who grow fruits and vegetables, whose gardens bloom with every shade of the rainbow. While I like to look at plants, I just don’t care very much for taking care of them. Insects and bugs and mud and all that (I know I know…).
So the idea of devoting a trip (and for many of Sack’s fellow fern-lovers, many other trips past and future) to plants is rather fascinating.
“In the States, the neo-hippie, neo-agrarian movement has made it rather fashionable to quit a high-paying job in thOriginally posted at Olduvai Reads
“In the States, the neo-hippie, neo-agrarian movement has made it rather fashionable to quit a high-paying job in the city, buy some herd animals, and start making fromage. Then, of course, you’re supposed to write a book about how going back to the land and making cheese has changed you by putting you back in touch with an ancient rhythm of life.”
I was thinking with my stomach and not my head when I requested this book from its publisher.
It was more “mmm…cheese” as visions of Brie danced in my head, than “hmmm a whole book about cheese? Would I really want to read that?”
So when I actually sat down to start reading The Whole Fromage, I panicked. I was to read a book about cheese! Was I crazy? Well yes, a little, as I had only recently finished a whole book about cod which is not even one of my favourite fishes (pomfret , snapper or mackerel are my fishes of choice, the first and second are wonderful steamed Chinese-style, the second and third are fantastic as sashimi. And on the non-edible side, I have a soft spot for the sunfish or mola, which captured my heart on my first trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium many years ago. Sadly, I learnt after my recent visit last month that it died a few years ago).
So back to the cheese. Oh I love to eat cheese. And in fact my most memorable dish at a very expensive fancy lunch was the cheese course. I’m willing to eat most cheeses except for Port Salut which I really cannot stand.
We always have a block of some kind of cheese in the fridge. As of July 12 when I’m writing this there is some Parmesan, Wisconsin cheddar (for a shepherd’s pie I made), aged English cheddar, and a Brie. Thanks to our nearby Trader Joe’s.
None of this compares to the many different types of cheeses that Kathe Lison details in her book, The Whole Fromage.
Lison has dairy in her genes. She hails from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and her great-great grandfather owned a dairy so, as she puts it, “my progenitors were certainly up to their eyeballs in udders”
But her childhood cheese was mostly industrial cheese (as was mine – mostly in the form of cellophane wrapped slices of Cheesdale Cheese, a New Zealand brand) and her interest in French cheeses only began after a trip to Paris when she bought a book on cheese and learnt that there is an estimated total of 650 different cheeses produced in France:
“There were cheeses with wild mulberry leaves pressed into their tops; cheeses bound with rushes; cheeses covered in ash, in cumin, in raisins, in bits of grape skin; cheeses furred with long hairs of mold; cheeses in the shape of bricks, logs, bells, sheep turds; gigantic round cheese that could crush a poodle; and tiny goat cheeses so tender-looking you wanted to pick them up and soothe them.”
So where most of us would probably just take the book home and shelve it, perhaps occasionally consulting it for a new cheese to try at the local supermarket, Lison takes it upon herself to travel around France, to cheese caves, to a monastery, to farmlands to watch different types of cheese being made, cows being milked, and just to sample all kinds of delectable cheeses, all the while learning about the politics being cheese production, in terms of French government subsidies, American government taxes and so on.
It is a detailed book, I mean, who knew there could be so much behind cheese? The French system of AOCs, for example, which preserves the diversity of French food products like cheese, actually makes them less diverse. Each producer makes a cheese differently, using their own technique, but an AOC cheese cannot be ‘too diverse’ and thus there is a need for ‘harmonisation’ of techniques. Some sections were perhaps a little too detailed for me, but there were plenty of fascinating cheese moments, like Camembert, a favourite cheese of mine, started out with a blue-gray and gray-green rind, because of the mould strain. But scientists managed to isolate a white spore strain, leaving us with that cheese “as white as the bosom of a pure Norman maid”.
And we mustn’t forget the taste of the cheeses themselves:
“Later that evening, I would sit in my room with one of Monique’s cabécous warm in my palm. It was pale – the pate of a chèvre is lighter in colour than a cow’s-milk cheese because goats convert more carotene (which, as you may recall from middle school science class, is what makes carrots orange) to vitamin A – and it was lovely. In my hand it felt sort of fleshy, almost alive, and when I squeezed it, the firmer pate slid about in the little pouch made by the croute. I cut it open with my Swiss army knife, and a layer of cream oozed about the edges. When I put my nose down to it and sniffed, it smelled heavenly, like the moist hay of the goat barn. Then I cut a morsel and placed it on my tongue. The taste was grassy and lemony, almost to the point of being tangy. There was salt, too, and a pleasant, musky aftertaste. It was the taste of Poutignac, of the farmhouse in the early morning light, of the polychromatic goats in the barn, of wildflowers like those Monique had hand-painted onto the tiles in my little bathroom, carefully writing their Latin names – Viola odorata or Primula veris – underneath each picture. The cheese seemed almost a part of Monique herself.”
Ok I have to go cut myself a slice of Brie now. It will not be as spectacular but it will have to do.
I received a copy of this book for review from Crown Publishing’s imprint Broadway Books.