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Sep 18, 2014

Where There's a Will: Tomme du Larzac

THE STORY:

If Anthony and I were to die together in a horrible car accident (and in Paris, that sometimes doesn't seem so far-fetched), all you'd need to do would be to check our will to find out will happen with our money, our children, our house. and our belongings -- including the collection of single socks that are perfect for all your dusting needs. In France, that is extremely unusual (and by "that", I don't mean the collection of single socks, I mean the last will and testament).


None of our French friends have a will, and when I say "none", I mean it quite literally. I have asked and asked and not only can I not find anybody who has a will written out, when I bring up the subject, they seem to think of it as a very exotic, novel idea.
 
That, it turns out, is not because they fancy themselves immortal but rather because of the French law, whereby the estate is divided by a careful and immutable formula.


It used to be that France operated under the tradition of primogeniture, that the first-born son inherited the family title, if there was one, and pretty much everything else, too. Since titles are officially abolished since the revolution, they are still handed down this way by tradition only, and I have two friends who aren't Countesses because of this rule. The revolution may have done away with titles, but it wasn't until Napoleonic Law that the inheritance laws changed and became very bureaucratic, regulated, strict, and complicated -- in short, very Napoleonic.
 
The highly simplified version is that the vast majority of the estate must be handed down in equal shares to all children -- biological or adopted only (not step-children). With one child, that's 50% of the estate, with two children it's 67%, and with three or more, it's 75%. Somebody could write up a will for the remaining portion and leave it to whomever they want (with a 60% tax if they are not related by blood), or failing that, the remainder will simply be divided equally as well. There are special rules relating to inheritance through bloodlines only of family heirlooms (our single sock collection would not qualify), which must make it extra fun for today's blended families.
 
Your child could be an axe murderer, and you would still be required to give him his full share. It's virtually impossible to disinherit a child here. I know of one person who hadn't seen his parents in 40 years, and had never introduced his children to these grandparents. He didn't even go to the parents' funerals. Yet he received an equal portion to his brother, who had fine relations with them.
 
Theoretically, most EU nationals living in most other member countries will be able to choose which nation's inheritance laws they wish to adhere to as of 2015, as long as it's laid out in a will (you will be unsurprised to hear that the UK plans to remain an exception).
 
By the same token, none of our French friends have determined what would happen to their children in the event of their deaths. In California, this would practically get them reported for parental negligence. Here, it's just normal. When I ask, it's as if they've never even thought about it. If something were to happen to any of our friends, their children's guardianship would automatically be taken care of by the state, with the closest relatives (usually aunts, uncles, grandparents) being given custody, one of whom is often the Godparent and therefore would have the best claim. My friends all seem to think it will be obvious to the surviving relatives which one should take the kids. It's true that it doesn't happen that often, but it also leaves out the possibility that somebody might want a friend to take the children instead of a relative. This suggestion has come up in conversation with my French friends too and is also greeted as practically heretical.
 
Your argument may be that by polling only my friends, I'm looking at a very self-selective group, and that's true. But since they are a self-selected group of highly educated, professionally successful, internationally-traveled families with children, it seem like -- if anything -- the results should skew to the side of people having put much more thought into what would happen after their demise.
 
THE CHEESE: Tomme du Larzac

Larzac is a high plateau in the Massif Central mountain range in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. When I say "mountains", you should know that most of the peaks are between 600 and 900 meters.

The Tomme du Larzac is a pretty general name and could refer to pure sheep, or a mixture of sheep and cows' milk. You may see it labeled more precisely: "Tomme de Brebis du Larzac" or "Tomme de Brebis et Vache du Larzac". In the case of the sample I buy, it's raw sheeps' milk.

When Tomme du Larzac is a mixture, it's generally made with about 1/3 raw cows' milk and 2/3 sheep milk heated and pressed into a huge, hard cheese.

 
Tomme du Larzac is aged at least two months, up to a year, in natural caves or cool cellars, and the result is a bumpy gray crust, and an interior that's both crumbly and creamy. The crumbliness makes this Tomme du Larzac the perfect cheese to pick at; like leftover Thanksgiving turkey, I simply cannot refrain from reaching in and picking out one more choice morsel. Even the crust is irresistible to me -- sort of like some cheese-candy powder breaking down in my mouth. Just looking at the photo makes my mouth water. It's not just the texture that starts off dry then gets exceptionally creamy; the flavor is a perfect balance of sweet and nutty and salty and tangy. Everybody at the table loves it, and I just wish I'd bought a bigger slice.
 
I am told there is a French cheesemaker in California who makes Tomme du Larzac there, with gently pasteurized milk in accordance with US regulations. I'm curious (but dubious) to see if could be anywhere near as delicious as the raw version I taste here in France. 

THE CONNECTION:

This is a crumbly cheese to start with, and then when I ask for a very thin slice, it really starts to fall apart. When I stage this photo, I immediately think of the phrase "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and, of course, that leads me to thoughts of mortality. It's an absolutely addicting, delicious cheese, and if somebody left me a big wheel of it in their will, I'd be pretty content.

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