Tour of the Question

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Detroit airport is a long, skinny tube that takes around half an hour to cross end to end at a curious stroll. There’s no shortage of food for the hungry: newsagents with bags of flavoured pretzels, bumped-out coffee shops with stacks of sandwiches, and more than a few sports bar-cum-restaurants.

I pass by the steakhouse and the fast-food court with pizzas, hot dogs and fried chicken, eventually doubling back to one; it had a hockey theme, and the smallest thing I could order was a serving of nachos topped with the requisite orange-tinted cheddar on a plate about an arm long.

It was, as it turns out, exactly what I wanted. The first flight had been booked in an unthinking rush to try to get to St. Louis in time to see my grandmother. Up until a week earlier, she had been a non-stop chatterbox with a sly sweet tooth and taste for Irish whiskey, who would lead her care home on day trips out and try and spike the weak juice at ‘cocktail hour’ when no one was looking. The nachos were a comforting re-centring through the familiar tangle of gummied corn crisps bearing dollops of tinny salsa and unnaturally thick sour cream.

The last time I had visited, we had gone to my grandmother’s favourite restaurant where she went at least once a week. Crusoe’s is a ‘family restaurant’, that American invention and gastronomic catch-all, with pancakes to burgers to cheesecake, as if this is the standards of a continent rather than a specific interpretation of Dutch, German and Italian dishes percolated down through cities, suburbs and highways over a few short generations. The weighty beige of starch hovers in the air: trays of garlic bread, breaded mushrooms, and in St Louis, crumb-coated toasted ravioli. Food arrives crowding of those oversized trays equivalent to another table. I think I ordered a fish filet, my aunt some type of creamy pasta and Grandma a Reuben sandwich; all were liberally topped with white shreds of Provel cheese.

Provel is, I’ve been told my whole life, a St. Louis speciality: a given of the city ingrained into its identity, a unique invention of the city’s sizable Italian community. The main place it features is on St.Louis-style pizza: large rectangles with an incredibly thin crust, cut into dozens small, firm bite-sized squares. Some people swear by it, many others swear off it. Interviews with Edward Imo, founder of what is still the most prominent purveyor of St.Louis pizza, and relatives of the various deli owners that claimed to have conceived of the cheese give conflicting accounts.[i] Though they all congregate around one notion: an Italian-American deli owner looking for a cheese with a clean bite, that wouldn’t make all those messy stretchy strings.

It is, as packets of the mass tell you, ‘pasteurized process cheddar, Swiss and provolone cheese, ideal for sandwiches and pizza-burgers’. Pizza is, after all, the West’s most popular vehicle for cheese: ‘pizza cheese’ is its own stock market commodity and where most the cheese-destined milk in America goes. The modern means of processing cheese had been invented in Thun, Switzerland by a cheese producer named Gerber (not the baby food company) in 1911: slowly mixing together several cheeses, bringing them bubbling up to a high temperature, produced a pourable, uniform paste that could last longer, travel further and remain unchanged in a wider range of situations. Perfect for exporting to European interests in hot, tropical climates, and ideal for military rations. A Canadian store manager, James Kraft, patented his own version soon after, producing five-pound bricks of bright orange reconstituted cheddar that came in long wooden boxes, and almost immediately sold over six million pounds of it to the US Army for their troops deployed in World War I. Provel still comes in similar bricks: they last several years – I’ve had one open in my fridge now for ten months, solidly unblemished. I remember trying St Louis pizza as a kid and wondering why it tasted so strange, and why my parents and aunts and uncles were so enthusiastic about this smokey putty. And as I sat there, trying to eat those nachos, I wondered again how a highly processed dairy product became a symbol for a city.

 

Two years earlier, I was standing in a ditch alongside a minor highway, attempting to get a goat to cross the road.There was a persistent drizzle whining at an angle through the dusk air. The animal, I’m sure, could sense my uncertainty as I tried to hedge her off and walk her back towards the farm that sat just on the other side of the two-lane road. She would look at me sideways, stepping further away every time I tried to come closer, trying to keep an eye for the occasional passing car, and only imagining over and over a scenario where the goat would get run over. After circling around from the other side of the road, she’d eventually scurried back into the field, and I could at least close the gate and go ask for help.

I’d arrived that morning. The preceding weeks had provided brief exchanges with the farmer; I’d tried ringing, with no answer, and sent a few over-explanatory emails. His one response was a line – I was welcome to come put ‘la main à la patte.’ The saying main à la pâte is like the English ‘get stuck in’, and ‘pâte’ is used for both dough and cheese. ‘Patte’ – paw – was his own added farming joke, a wink I’d overlooked until reading his email again a year later. For months I’d planned the visit, hoping to spend a few weeks there to find the tempo of goat dairying, to learn what I could through direct exposure about the cheeses that Véronique and Christian Arnaud were making. I spent the morning watching the herd’s vat of milk get emptied into plastic tubs to mature for the next day’s cheese making, and the milk from the day before – by now a rubbery sheen of gelatinous curd – get quickly ladled into hundreds of oval-shaped moulds. The goats were then ushered across the road for the afternoon.

The Arnauds and their colleagues had been a vague obsession of mine for a while – stories about a co-op in the plateaus of Limousin, the least populated region in France, made up of soixante-huitards who produced the ash-rind goats cheeses we would occasionally carry on the cheese stall where I worked in London. Kids who’d been part of the May 1968 demonstrations in France, who’d packed up and headed to the countryside in search of the ideal life they’d been yelling for. It resonated with my own urge to flee; maybe not to forge an entirely new life, but to get away from the breakups and bankruptcy for a period of time. The plan began to form in my mind on slow days at the market, rearranging and wrapping piles of cheese while waving off flies, telling the odd customer that the creamy, dense bit they were chewing on was made by anarcho-syndicalists. I started to form the belief that there was a political link between animal and farmer – that cows, huge, docile grazing beasts producing gallons and gallons of milk, were more capitalistic, and goats, fickle and independent foraging animals, were inevitably more left-leaning.

It had been a simple enough ask: help Vincent, the Arnaud’s twenty-year-old apprentice, bring the goats back for their evening milking. I was relieved to be given a task, as all I’d done so far was drink their coffee and take pictures. The herd sprung to follow Vincent out the open gate while I brought up the rear, all one-hundred-and-fifty-odd of them clattering eagerly across the highway; it was just one that hesitated, countering me and bolting up to the top of the ditch between the pasture fence and the road. I spent the next forty minutes running back and forth in the rain along a mile stretch, second-guessing the goat and feeling increasingly naïve and awkward for not being able to just do this one thing. Standing in the road, the flimsiness, the simple silliness of my idea of coming to be a part of this place was obvious; I simply was too much of a suburban boy.

Christian laughed it off at dinner that evening: the goats have to trust you, and that takes a while. We were eating sausages made from last season’s male kids, with bread rolls stamped with the organic ‘Agriculture Biologique’ logo. Tomorrow, he said, I would help with the milking and it would be different.

 

I’d arrived in St. Louis half a day too late. After the church service, we left the casket shadowed under a temporary gazebo in the cemetery and filed off towards a nearby high school that had offered their basketball court for the reception. Crusoe’s provided the food. Chaffing dishes and a few aluminium trays filled with beef lasagne, cannelloni and a salad of iceberg lettuce, all topped, again, with Provel cheese.

In making Provel, it is the name only that is trademarked, not the ingredients or production process. At some point, the cheese became a mix of cheddar, provolone and Swiss; the ingredients list now also includes ‘smoke flavour, powdered cellulose to prevent caking’, which are perhaps what give it its ever-so-slight point at the top of the mouth and self-contained demeanour that its defenders cite as virtues.

Histories of Provel point to a John Sigillito, who ran a grocers under the name International Food Products, as the original purveyor of Provel. There isn’t any documentation of development or negotiations, but it’s interesting to note that a man running a small shop in The Hill – an area of St. Louis that since the 1830s had been settled by families from Lombardy and Sicily, and is still home to a host of Italian restaurants and shops – looked to out of the state to fulfil his dream. There was no shortage of milk or cheese in Missouri in the 1940s: it was one of the ten leading cow milk-producing states in the country (the US Department of Agriculture 1945 census lists close to 400 million gallons of milk produced, a figure which continued to grow year by year; it’s only after the 1964 census that the figures begin to gradually, but consistently, decline). But these were simply smaller farms.

‘Thirty-five years of “know-how” enables us to produce the types and kind of cheese your customers want. HOFCO quality brings them back for more – builds volume and profits for you‘, claims a J.S. Hoffman Company ad from the ’40s. For decades, cheese production in the US particularly had focused on consistency and shelf performance rather than taste. The Hoffman Co. had a national profile of process cheeses that would last ready-wrapped at the grocers for a few weeks at least. How that same broad middle profile, distinguishing itself as just a little bit softer and a touch smokier. After a series of corporate takeovers, Provel production is now overseen by Churny, a subsidiary of Kraft, their logo an outline of an old-fashioned butter churn.same broad middle profile, distinguishing itself as just a little bit softer and a touch smokier. However it was Sigillito who convinced them to take on the scheme, the Provel trademark mentions that the name first came into existence on 15 April, 1947, and was first used commercially in June that same year, made in the Hoffman factory in Green County, Wisconsin.

How a factory-made Wisconsin cheese remains a source of local pride in just one part of Missouri is part of its tang, shall we say. There’s proof that Provel was sold in Ohio and Wisconsin in the ’50s, but even within Missouri only St. Louisians have continued to cling to it, or vice versa.[ii] The cheese’s constituent parts themselves tell divergent stories of long migrations: provolone, made by stretching its curds under hot water, is a pale, mild cheese that originated near the base of Vesuvius, but has since migrated to be made mainly in Italy’s more industrial north; cheddar was originally a cloth-bound, barrel-shaped wheel that over a hundred years has detached any connection to Cheddar, Somerset, to become the Western world’s default name for a slightly acidic hard cheese; and Swiss, that American term for any cheese that attempts to gesture towards the flat nuttiness of skimmed-milk, Alpine Emmental. All of these cheeses, interpreted through immigrant nostalgia and dreams of prosperity, had become milder and smoother while being made in larger and larger rooms on the North American continent; becoming, perhaps, less distinct types of cheese than texture and consistency delivery systems. The few cheeses considered uniquely ‘American’, such as Colby and Brick, are slight variations on that warm taste of industrial cheddar; Provel sits on that same broad middle profile distinguishing itself as just a little bit softer and a touch smokier. After a series of corporate takeovers, Provel production is now overseen by Churny, a subsidiary of Kraft, their logo an outline of an old-fashioned butter churn.

 

‘We were the people who wanted to live freely,’ Christian says. ‘Independent and autonomous. We wanted to live in isolation, withdrawn into ourselves. We had hair down to the middle of our backs, we were remaking the world. We wanted the minimum: a vegetable garden, some goats and to make cheese, because that was the hippie dream.’ The term ‘baba-cool’ in French feels like it goes further than ‘hippie’, somehow holding both awe and a detached irony from the role. ‘We did the milking, made cheese in the kitchen, and sold our cheese at a market down the road. We were savages.’

The Arnauds were part of a wave of neo-ruralists that moved from cities across the Western world in the ’60s and ’70s. Perhaps what is most striking about them and their farm is that they’re still there. Christian was twelve when the student riots broke out in Paris in 1968, ‘nourished’ by the ferment of the period. It was August 1975 when he and a bunch of friends headed south. Limousin appealed because of its obscurity, empty and away from the world as they knew it. Hefty, ginger Limousin breed cows dot most fields, trucks laden with oak trunks regularly juddering down isolated roads. Christian and his friends odd-jobbed on various farms, eventually squatting an empty house in the middle of a forest in Corrèze. The region has a history of a mostly quiet, rural communism that has come quite prominently to the fore in recent decades as it has waned. Most famously, guerrilla bands of maquis resistance fighters in the damp hills and woodlands during the second World War managed to prevent the Germans from ever fully occupying the area. More recently, a commune in the small village of Tarnac came under national scrutiny after nine of its members were arrested (though never charged) for planning an anarchist insurrection.

Christian recalls hundreds of people, teenagers to mid-twenties, coming down to settle in the area up through the ’80s. Véronique had moved down there with a previous boyfriend and taken up a cheesemaking apprenticeship, and in 1979 they set up their own farm. Getting some second-hand moulds to shape the curds, they made Crottin de Chavignol, a small, thick cylinder (the name meaning ‘goat’s turd’) that would be readily familiar to French shoppers. They formed a union of goat farmers in the area with thirty-five farmers, each with just ten to twenty goats.

‘They lasted five, ten, fifteen years – then they went back to their jobs or their studies, went back to the city and gave up. Some of them found it too hard, they couldn’t get by; some didn’t work hard enough, or just didn’t have the “feeling”.’ He uses the English word, to emphasise whatever essential sentiment it is that means you can stick out the unceasing daily routine, go through the process of milking, making and delivering a fragile, expiring product for at least nine months of the year, and face up to a massive dairy and food industry that constantly tries to undercut your costs. ‘Others, once they reached thirty-five, forty years old, were content with what they had done, because they felt that had explored the issue.’ He uses the phrase ‘tour de la question’, which gives more of the sense of a journey, a problem circled around and the attendant eventual exhaustion.

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In the early ’90s, the Arnauds decided to make an oval-shaped ash-rind cheese, naming it Gour Noir after the forest they had squatted in twenty years earlier. Around the same time, they helped found a co-op with the five remaining cheesemakers in the area, to share land and increase capacity; each would make their own individual style of cheese most of the week, while they would all produce one cheese, a teardrop-shaped ‘leaf of Limousin’, in common. It meant they could deal with larger distributors and shops in quantities that meant economic survival, while still letting each turn up at the nearby market with their own distinct forms and favourites.

Goats’ cheese is, as I still see it, cheese making at its most direct.Once the animals are milked, a small bit of calf-stomach rennet solution and the liquid’s own process of acidification turn it, by the next day, into a semi-solid mass that can be scooped into moulds and left to drain slowly. By the day after, they’re on a drying rack and on the way to cultivating a few wrinkles and furry blooms on their shiny backsides. Compared to other cheese processes, which require more heat, pressure or rennet, the soft bloom of a goats’ cheese bears through so many parts of what went into making it: a faint sweetness of grasses, the funk of goat fur, the unmistakable fug of the humid cheese room. What you end up with in the case of Gour Noir is a pudgy body that is chalky in the middle, a savoury gooeyness developing just under the furrowed dark skin after a few weeks. Sometimes under the wide, warm creaminess there is a hint of vegetation, something asparagusy, or of a lichen-filled forest.

Provel perhaps echoes the rooms in which it is made: large white, sterile rectangles. Vats that hold hundreds of gallons whir mechanically, stirring together the combined cheeses. After cooling, massive masses of the paste are carried down conveyor belts and cut into progressively smaller pieces.

Working as a cheesemonger in my adopted home of the sprawl of London, I’d narrate small-scale cheese productions and detail flowered mountain-top alpine scenes and mould-infested dank huts to city-bound shoppers. But a certain displacement and idealisation would slip in, somewhere between my mouth and theirs. As if this object that had arrived in front of them could right to all the imbalances of our food network, could deliver us all to our own secluded, hassle-free farm of smiling chickens and comradely goats. I had lasted only four days with the Arnauds; after three mornings botching batches and long, quiet evenings, I felt I was costing them more than their hard-won lifestyle warranted from a wide-eyed visitor. My own ‘tour de la question’ was somewhere else.

Sitting at a fold-up table in the basketball court, remembering the Limousin while chewing on lukewarm Crusoe’s lasagne, my convictions melted. Strands of Provel carry the taste of their origin just as much as any clump of Gour Noir – the two cheeses might embody contradictory poles, but both are equal vessels of food’s rampant emotional spark; both are the wayward, slow-burning outcomes of different revolutions. However disparately conceived and produced, they share an impulse for belonging, a desire for independence. Provel isn’t just a gummy process cheese; that day I found it could also become a carrier of some kind of connection, and a hazy, indefinable feeling of home.

 

[i] See this St Louis Today article, and Mark Veety’s earlier archived blog piece.

[ii] The J.S. Hoffman Co.’s New York branch general manager at the time was a rabbi, Sol Salinger; when his son dropped out of NYU in 1937, Sol had tried steering him towards a career in meat and cheese importing. Jerry D. Salinger had other ideas. You might imagine Salinger being sent a sample of his company’s new product, maybe even testing it on his family, to perhaps decide it just wasn’t for New Yorkers.

 

Originally published in Feast Journal, Setting the Table, Issue 4: Spaces For Eating, 2018.

With thanks to Feast, the Delfina Foundation, CIAP Île de Vassivière, the extended Mons family and the Arnauds.

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