Each week, culture intern Katherine will scour great works of literature for all the cheesy details your English teacher never showed you. Authors often include mentions of food and drink in their written works to give the reader a small glimpse into the culture and historic foodways of a particular place and era. This blog series will lend readers a helping hand and shed some light on the cheeses between the lines of the literary greats. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win a special issue of culturemagazine.
While it’s more commonly known as the hit Broadway musical, Victor Hugo’s original literary version of Les Miserables is just as exciting as its lyrical contemporary. Published in 1862, Les Miserables tells the tale of the misjudged ex-convict, Jean Valjean, his trials of redemption, and various events leading up to the Paris Uprising of 1832 in France. The great work of literature was easy to adapt for the stage thanks to Hugo’s realistic descriptions and his nearly encyclopedia knowledge of France and the French culture. Spanning over 15 years, the novel follows several main characters throughout their lives with a few thoughtful tangents thrown in here and there. One of these descriptive digressions details the methods of cheese-making in a specific historic region of France to which Jean Valjean travels. Slice up that baguette and get ready to dream a dream of cheese gone by as we traverse through the French countryside of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece…
After 19 years in prison, ex-convict Jean Valjean is released with orders to report to a parole officer in Pontarlier in eastern France. Before he leaves, the town’s benevolent Bishop Myriel gives him shelter and food. During their humble dinner, Myriel explains that the area to which Valjean must travel has several perks, one of which is cheese.
“In the region of Pontarlier, where you are going, Monsieur Valjean, there is a charming patriarchal industry consisting of the cheese-farms which they call fruitières.”
The region known as Pontarlier is located on the French-Swiss border near the picturesque Swiss Alps in the Franche-Comte region of eastern France. Historically known for producing absinthe, the area also boasts a rather sizable cheese production and is home to varieties like Cancoillotte, Morbier, Munster, Vacherin, and Comte. When Myriel mentions the “patriarchal industry” he refers to the tradition of transhumance, a historical dairying activity predominately performed by male members of the local community.
It is interesting to note that only 30 kilometers (that’s about 18 miles) northwest of Pontarlier, sits the little agricultural village of Deservillers, home to the oldest known fruitiere in the world. Built in 1273, this fruitièrewas originally owned by a great wealthy family whose various fine cheeses became popular with foreigners traveling through the mountainous area. Myriel encourages Valjean to continue eating while he elaborates on the dreamy little cheese commune,
“[He] described these Pontarlier fruitières to him in great detail. There are two kinds, those known as thegrosses granges, the property of rich owners, with a herd of forty or fifty cows, which produce seven or eight thousand cheeses in a summer, and the fruitières d’associations formed by groups of the poorer peasants in the middle hills who share the cows and their produce…”
In France, fruitières exist as a kind of cheese cooperative, where various groups or farmers can share space to gather milk and produce cheese. The word fruitière has several origin possibilities including fruit as in “the fruit of their labors” and a more tenuous connection with the old medieval word fruitière which comes from the same linguistic branch as the word fromage.
The two types of fruitières is significant as it demonstrates the social inequity that remained after the French Revolution (and part of the reason for the June Uprising half a century later). The phrase grosses grangesliterally translates to “fat barn.” The smaller, poorer fruitières receive payment for their work from a cheese-maker known as the grurin,
”The grurin takes three deliveries of milk a day and enters the quantities in a double register. Cheese-making begins towards the end of April, and the peasants take their cows up to the hill-pastures about the middle of June.”
Unfortunately, Jean Valjean is far too hungry and far too bitter to ever think of settling down to make cheese, and so the Bishop’s anecdote merely serves as conversational filler before the author thickens the plot. But one can clearly see that the Bishop, while perfectly suited to his clerical ways, would rather be making cheese somewhere in the countryside with the “hill-people of Pontarlier” and their “pleasant labours high under heaven.” Now that would make a great Broadway musical.
Liberté, égalité, fromage!