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Roquefort

The first time I tried Roquefort cheese I put my tastebuds into shock and they went on strike for a week; it was not a pleasurable experience. Before then, I’d eaten little bits of roquefort mixed into quiches, but the pale greybluefuzz marbled — or riddled, if you prefer — stuff itself had never passed unadulterated into my mouth. The instant it did, curling acrid plumes of cheese-teethy flavor, which for some reason made me recall brilliant neon-green neon lights buzzing and flashing, swarmed and overwhelmed my palate. Jesus, I thought, who could enjoy this at all, much less enough to develop a passion for it? But people are very passionate about roquefort.

Perhaps people love Roquefort to appreciate craft; loving roquefort — that is, shouldering its marked flavor until one becomes accustomed to it, comes to crave it — becomes an endorsement of the craft that made it, or that craft’s tradition or cultural heritage. Because the name ‘roquefort’ is controlled, only those cheeses which meet certain requirements, that is, those cheese produced in the town Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, may be called roquefort, sort of like all scotches coming from Scotland. So roquefort necessarily is French. And the myth of Roquefort’s discovery does hold a certain romantic cachet for those who’ve savored the bitter side of sweet-bitter love. The myth goes: a young shepherd goes into some caves to have lunch, and in the middle of it spots a beautiful woman, drops his food and takes up the chase, trying to catch her; he can’t catch her, for whatever reason, and returns ravenous to find his food mildewed, but is so hungry he eats it anyway. The flavor of the strangely rotten food — that is, the first roquefort — isn’t so good in a straightforward sort of way, but it doesn’t kill the shepherd, and it takes the edge off of his spurned-love by sliding another along his tongue. So an icon was born. The process of making roquefort was initially as crude as letting milk sit in a cave while chasing women: the mold growing in the caves was harvested by leaving several loaves of bread to rot in them; then the remains of the bread were gathered and dried and mixed with ewe’s milk curds; three months later you’ve got roquefort. Now the process is much more scientific, and has lost a lot of its haphazard romanticism for it. But the history of roquefort does have elements as attractive as any other cultural icon.
Mostly though, I think the love of roquefort comes down to stubborn French pride in the cheese’s very Frenchness, a clung-to remnant of past-times that are rapidly being lost and that are the object of a frantic struggle for preservation. Roquefort has become a sort of symbol of resistance to globalization and its less desirable side-effects, thanks to petty trade disputes and a militant fromager named José Bové, who may or may not be the next presidential candidate of les Verts, but who will certainly spend the next four months in prison.

II
The symbolic weight of roquefort got heavier 6 years ago, during the Clinton administration, when Europeans decided that they did not want to import hormone treated beef, of which the USA is a large producer, because they believed it might cause cancer. The EU prohibited all imports of hormone enhanced beef. When it refused to budge on the matter, despite the grumblings of the USA, Washington responded by placing tariffs on some one hundred European exports, including the French staples foie gras and Roquefort cheese. Such action inflamed the passions of many French, especially those living in the Larzac region, which produces Roquefort cheese, as the tariffs hit them especially hard. Why should they have to, they wondered, suffer for not wanting to eat food which might cause cancer? José Bové, a sheep farmer and cheese-maker who lives in the Larzac, responded in characteristic fashion by smuggling some 30 kilos of Roquefort into the US and demolishing a McDonald’s in Millau.
Understanding Bové will put his response into context. He has a long history of political agitation in France and abroad, having achieved global celebrity for his actions. The demolition of the Millau McDonalds, or l’affaire du McDo de Millau, helped achieve this especially. Bové and some 200 others descended on the half-erected golden arches of Millau with chainsaws and farm equipment, even using a tractor to pull off the building’s roof, and then proceeded to level the rest of the structure. The audacity of this gained him the international spotlight, which he did not squander. The media took to Bové because of his nigh caricature-esque personage. One article sums up their response thus:

Ce moustachu fumeur de pipe au look très français, et qui, de surcroît, se débrouille très bien en anglais, attire les caméras du monde entier en brandissant - objet hautement pédagogique - un fromage de son Larzac, soudain promu au rang de trophée antimondialisation. La lutte contre la mondialisation néolibérale venait de gagner un visage télégénique.

Others are not so charitable. The review Action Familiale et Scolaire has called Bové “Toujours et partout anti-français” in an article that does little to veil its bias.
Whatever one’s feeling toward the justice of destroying private property to achieve a political goal, he must give at least a grudging respect to Bové’s willingness to accept the consequences of his actions. Such willingness is the centerpiece of the explanations that Bové makes in court when he’s been summoned for prosecution. One of his courtroom speeches has been translated into English — thankfully, because I have no intention of translating another myself — and it will serve nicely as a demonstration. Here are the more exemplorary passages:

I knew that by acting in this way I was doing something illegal. But it was necessary and we had no other choice. The way in which genetically modified agricultural products have been imposed on European countries didn’t leave us with any alternative.

When was there a public debate on genetically modified organisms? When were farmers and consumers asked what they think about this? Never…

…Yes, this action was illegal, but I lay claim to it because it was legitimate.

A democratic debate simply doesn’t exist. The conspiracy of silence organized by the companies and the sovereign states is the sole logic which prevails…

Yes, this action was illegal, but I lay claim to it because it was legitimate. I don’t demand clemency, but justice. Either we have acted in everyone’s interest and you will acquit us, or we have shaken the establishment and in that case you will punish us.

There is nothing here from which one could argue that Bové is psychopathically unaware of the consequences of his actions, or uncaring about them. Rather he is coolly aware of them, rationally weighing them against the likely benefit he sees will come from attracting the public attention — attention that has been trained to be short-spanned and fickle. So far, it seems that Bové’s gamble has paid off: France has been swept into two sides, those that support him and those who loathe him, by l’effet Bové.
It’s no surprise then that Bové continues his actions. He continues also to pay the price: last week he was sentenced to four months in prison for destroying a crop of GMO maize. The rewards have continued just the same: the French Green Party has been considering endorsing Bové for their presidential bid. One suspects as well that all the international attention he’s been garnering Roquefort has increased its sales, in spite of added tax and acrid taste.

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