I tell Marie-Anne Cantin that the cheese is a gift for a friend in California and ask if she can wrap it up for me. She asks when I am leaving. Tomorrow, I tell her. “Then I will deliver it to your hotel. What time do you leave?”
When I ask her why I can’t just take it with me, she sighs, looks at me sadly, and says it is simply not possible. That is when she delivers the bombshell: “You know, of course, this cheese is illegal in your country,” she says. No, I tell her. I did not know.
And then she sees the problem: I am a dupe. A rube. A cheese mule, as it were. I have been asked to carry nine ounces of an illegal substance, something I know nothing about. So her mission is clear. If I am to go through with this, first I must learn what I’m dealing with. Before she will sell me the Epoisses, she insists on giving me a crash course in French cheesemaking (most of which I have already revealed to you).
Madame Cantin puts on a smart laboratory smock and leads me down some dark stairs at the rear of her shop to the cellar. Here she has two dark rooms full of stinky raw-milk cheeses. One room for goat cheese, another room for cow cheese. We enter the goat cheese room. There are hundreds—no, thousands—of little white slabs of cheese on trays stacked from floor to ceiling being aged to perfection. The Fort Knox of chèvre. For the next hour or so, I learn everything there is to know about curds and whey. I learn about rennet and mold and brine. I learn about washed-rind cheeses, like Epoisses, which, as they ripen, are brushed with marc, a French alcohol. But mostly I learn about the joys of making cheese from unpasteurized milk.