Dipping Some Funky Cheese in Bitter Coffee: Gross or Not Gross?
Maroilles Cheese in the North of France
I’d only been living in France for four months with my loving French wife when we had our first French Christmas. We were invited to celebrate with her family, so we drove from the south of France to the north, simply called the Nord region, to stay with her grandparents. My wife’s grandparents live in a small village and are in their 80s. They’re traditional people and adorably French. They also don’t speak English, nor did I speak French well at that point; but love was felt and there were a couple of family translators to communicate, so it was possible. My wife and I, along with several family members, were all staying at the home of the grandparents: a three-story house with creaky stairs and one bathroom. But the house was spacious and comfortable.
The first morning, I slept in and had a late breakfast, my favorite kind of breakfast. Her grandmother had available local Maroilles cheese, some bread, butter, homemade jam, and coffee. It was chicory coffee, made from burnt endives. The end result looks like coal, similar to the coal that used to come from these villages long ago. These hardy people call themselves the Ch’ti (sh’ti) which roughly translates to sticks. So I got to experience a traditional Ch’ti breakfast, designed by the coal miners of yesteryear.
While having breakfast, my wife and her grandmother were sitting around, talking. The grandmother had a story to tell me, and my wife translated. Sipping on some late morning rosé, she began to tell me of the time she was a child during WWII, living in this very house. She was very young, maybe eight or nine, when the whole Nord region was occupied by the Nazis, forcing the family from the home. In fact, the Nazis used it as a headquarters in the region. Ammunition was stored next to the wine in their cellar, the commander and other soldiers slept in their beds, and there was even a battlefield not far from the village. Once the war was over, they were able to return to their home and move back in, with minimal damage done to the home, but the same couldn’t be said for the village.
After speaking of the house, she casually changed gears and told me of a Ch’ti tradition, which is to dip the bread and cheese into the chicory. Fact: Maroilles cheese is a stinky cheese, high on the list of all the stinkiest cheeses. Still, I find it tasty. It is gross to dip that cheese into some really bitter coffee, but it isn’t to them. It isn’t even a prank, which I was convinced of at the time, being the new member of the family. To respect tradition, I dipped and ate. I now prefer to have them separately; breakfast should not be so tortuous.