I was born in Paris but spent much of my childhood and my teenage years in the French countryside. I participated often in farm work, such as taking care of cows. It was a time when the French countryside was virtually not mechanized. We were still using horses as a means of locomotion and oxen as beasts of burden. Milking was done by hand and was the work reserved for women. We made our own butter, and our own cheese, with varying degrees of success. It must be said that this was the period of the Second World War. My family and I were living in a house without electricity and running water. Most men were prisoners of war or conscripted and deported to Germany to work, often in inhumane conditions to support the German war effort.
My father had been arrested and forced to join the ranks of STO (service travail obligatoire – forced work camp) and sent to Germany. After a few months he had managed to escape and returned to France in secret, however he was not about to stay in Paris since according to the French government, controlled by the Germans at that time, he was a missing person. We ended up in Anjou, in a wooded place outside a small village. My father, being considered dead, had no identification papers. Some people in the village knew our story, but luckily, no one denounced my father, people called him, “le réfractaire” (a kind of dodger of authorities). We were happy when the Americans arrived to liberate our part of the country.
It was after the end of the war that my parents, for economic reasons, decided to return to live in the city. For me it was far from my choice, but no one asked my opinion.
It was at this time that I discovered the prejudices of French city people (especially Parisians) vis-à-vis the country people. Working in the sale of agricultural products was not considered a prestigious profession. The BOFs, as they were called (trade in Butter, Eggs and Cheese) was considered to be work fit for uneducated people.
My parents decided to put me in high school as a boarder. That is to say that I returned to my family on Saturday night and went back to school on Monday morning. In France, at that time, if you continued your studies in high school in the first year you had to learn Latin and a modern language, English or German. My father was a convinced European and thought we had to think to the future of a unified Europe to prevent the carnage of two world wars from occurring again. Therefore, I started to learn German, which as you might imagine in post-war France, was not very popular. After two years of high school, we had to learn Greek and a second modern language. In my case, it was English. I must say that the German class had not many students and the teacher that we had from the first day knew how to capture our interest and focus it on the language of Goethe. Later on, I had the opportunity as a student to make several trips to Germany. At that time, the European Union was beginning to take shape, I was able to work in Germany for two years before choosing to immigrate to Canada.
When I arrived in Canada, I landed in Toronto – Toronto the Good, as it was called at that time. It must be said that Toronto was a very conservative city, with Victorian values and morality. Just to give an example, when you opened a restaurant, you did not have permission to sell liquor for 3 years. After 3 years you had permission to sell only beer for 6 months. After 6 months, you had the right to sell any kind of liquor, as long as the customer consumed the drink with a full meal. It was the remnants of the period of the Prohibition, with alcohol being the source of all evil!
It was in 1970 that I joined an import company of European cheeses and groceries. As a Frenchman, I knew what cheese was. Apart from the recent European immigrants in Ontario, true Torontonians, of English origin, did not know cheese and other gourmet foods. It was not part of English Canadian culture. Quebec, with its population of majority French origin, was more open to what we call gastronomy. This is what has been said by the French writer Pierre Daninos in his satirical novel Les carnets du Major Thompson:
‘”Les Anglais se tiennent à table, mais ce sont le Français qui mangent.“
This translates more or less as “The English know how to conduct themselves appropriately at the table, but it is the French who eat.”
Another example to understand how the mentality of Ontarians was at that time, being a Master Chef was not considered a profession. Therefore, the Master chefs regrouped together in an association to force the government to recognize their professional status. It is thanks to the French who preceded me in the 1950s, and to Quebec that my work in Ontario was a lot easier. When I started working as a representative in this import company, I had two advantages over my colleagues: I had a good knowledge of French cheeses and I spoke German better than I spoke English. My main clients were the restaurant chefs, most of whom were Europeans (French, Swiss, and Germans) and I managed to convince them to put a cheese platter on the menu. There were also the European grocery stores, called Ontario’s delicatessens (a German word roughly equivalent in French to fromagerie or épicerie). These establishments were run by immigrants from Eastern Europe. The majority of these people knew French products and spoke German better than English. This was the lion’s share of my customers.
Eventually trade between Europe and Canada intensified. In 1975, a food import company (primarily importing cheese), based in Montreal, asked me to open a branch in Toronto. From the start, it was a success. Wine tasting with cheese was becoming fashionable. It must also be said that the legislation on alcoholic beverages had eased. Until 2011, I worked in different companies in the import of European cheese (mostly French cheese) to Canada. Over the years, I have improved my knowledge of not only French cheese but also on cheeses of different origins. I had the opportunity to visit industrial plants in Canada and in Europe, where the daily production is counted by tons and also small factories, which produce typical local specialties called farmer’s cheese or farmhouse cheese. Generally, farmhouse cheese is a product made from milk from the cow of a single breed, usually from a herd close to the factory. The cheese made in industrial plants is produced with milk from different herds and collected often far from the dairy.
Today I am retired from the cheese business and my retirement project is to write about French cheese. I enjoy writing about cheese and interacting with people on social media about cheese.
I am often asked, what is my favorite kind of cheese. There is such a wide variety of cheese available, it is difficult to recommend a specific cheese. It is a matter of taste. Each individual develops a taste for different cheeses over several tastings. Personally, I like cheese made with unpasteurized (raw) milk because I enjoy its full flavor.