March is women’s history month, and though I would not call myself an ardent ‘feminist’ – in the clichéd bra-burning kind of way – I realize that this sentiment is probably largely due to the fact that I take for granted how good I’ve got it thanks to the work of all of those fierce women who paved the path that I contentedly walk.
The world of cheese has probably always had a more feminist bent than other professions – especially in the field of agriculture. In France as in many other cultures, the work of making cheese was often a woman’s work. In the case of small-format cheeses like Camembert, and the little drums, thimbles, pyramids, buttons, and discs of goat cheese that are a large part of France’s gastronomic patrimony, we owe a debt of gratitude to the women who made them betwixt and between countless other tasks on the farm.
For those of you who did not grow up on a farm that produces cheese (and I imagine there are a few of you out there…) there is a real division of labor on the farm – there’s inside work, and then there’s outside work. Making cheese falls under the ‘inside work’ umbrella. The cheesemaking process is a fastidious one (cleaning, tempering milk, culturing milk, checking the feel of the curd, ladling the curd into molds, salting, turning, brushing, washing) and one that takes place over many hours. It would often be the woman’s job to tend to the cheesemaking while shuttling back and forth between the house and other farm chores. Apparently the age-old cliché that women are better at multitasking than men has roots in the cheese world as well.
When I lived in France before opening Saxelby Cheesemongers, I made goat cheese on three different dairies in the Loire Valley. On those dairies, the women were in charge of making the cheese, and the men were in charge of the animal husbandry and farm maintenance (or ‘outside work’) – feeding and milking the animals twice daily, haying fields, fixing tractors, etc. Of course this notion can be easily upended. There are certain cheeses, mostly larger-format ones – that traditionally were made by men (Comté, Cheddars, etc) or cheeses like the great sheep cheeses from the Pyrenees that are crafted in huts in high mountain pastures by groups of male shepherds, and there are certainly a lot of women out there who can fix a tractor. But it is all to say that women have a solid spot in the cheesemaking hall of fame.
Now let’s talk about mongers. In French, the word ‘monger’ doesn’t exist (can you imagine saying ‘monger’ with a French accent?!) but a woman in cheese is a fromagére or an affineuse. Many of the best cheese shops and affinage operations in France are run by women – There is Marie Quatrehomme, Marie-Anne Cantin, and Nicole Barthelemy in Paris, and La Mere Richard with her storied St Marcellin in Lyon. The best chefs in France, and the most discerning of cheese eaters happily entrust their cheese selections to these grand dames du fromage.
In America, one could argue that our artisan cheese revolution was kindled (and the flames stoked) by women. Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, when the rest of the country was wolfing down Velveeta and Kraft Singles, women like Laura Chenel, Mary Keehn, and Jennifer Bice in California, Allison Hooper and Laini Fondiller in Vermont, Paula Lambert in Texas and Judy Schad in Indiana, were trying their hands at making an array of goat cheeses and fresh Italian-style cheeses – the likes of which had never been seen stateside. Fast-forward to 2016, and when you look at the cornucopia of American artisan cheeses that grace the counters of Saxelby Cheesemongers, Dean and DeLuca, Whole Foods and beyond, give thanks to these women and to their visionary (and at the time) wildly impractical desire to create fine European-style cheese in the United States.
As a woman who opened a cheese shop in New York City at the age of 25, googly-eyed with admiration for these cheese pioneers and the legions they inspired, and given the chance to launch a crazy business and sell New Yorkers good cheese, I guess I just might be a feminist after all… So when you munch on a morsel of cheese this March, give thanks to the many women out there – now and throughout history – making, aging, and selling great cheese!