Oct 21, 2014

Pregnant in Paris: Tomme des Cabasses


No, don't get all excited (or panicked, depending on your relationship to me): I'm not the one pregnant in Paris. But my friend is, and as an American who has two children already that were born in the US, she knows just what things I'm going to find bizarre about how the French "do" pregnancies.

The most obvious thing about pregnancy, of course, is the weight gain and the bowling ball, watermelon, spare tire. But the French do not eat with wild abandon. Normal, recommended weight gain in the US (assuming average-sized, non-obese woman) is 25-35 lbs. or 11-16 kg. In France, the recommended weight gain is 19-26 lbs. or 8.5-12 kg. So, perhaps hand in hand with the fact that I don't see many/ any really overweight or obese women in Paris, I also don't see particularly large pregnant women. Their bellies are large, of course, in the last trimester, but it's really noticeably less, overall, than in the States.

For the pregnant woman herself, one of the most noticeable things is what she can and cannot eat. In the US, when I was pregnant (admittedly, a decade ago), I was told I could eat any cheese, as long as it was pasteurized. As most cheeses in the US are pasteurized, that was a pretty easy limitation. The recommendations have changed over the years, but the current advice from no less than the Mayo Clinic is the same as what I was told a decade ago: pasteurized cheese is acceptable; unpasteurized is to be avoided. On their website they tell pregnant women to, "Avoid soft cheeses, such as Brie, feta and blue cheese, unless they are clearly labeled as being pasteurized or made with pasteurized milk." The French, however, have a different recommendation. Pregnant women can eat any hard, aged cheese, even if unpasteurized, but are supposed to avoid soft cheeses whether pasteurized or not.

I tell my friend, a doctor, about the US guidelines on pasteurization and she thinks about it a minute, "Huh. That seems more logical than ours. But that's just the way it is." The truth is, hard, aged cheeses can't harbor the scary bacteria that pregnant women -- and US FDA and import officials -- worry about, and that's why you can import aged cheeses into the US, even if they are unpasteurized.

But perhaps most interesting to both of us is that they automatically test her for toxoplasmosis antibodies and, to nobody's surprise, find she does not have them. Apparently, most foreign women don't have the antibodies already in their system, and must go in for monthly -- yes, monthly -- tests while pregnant. Most French women, on the other hand, already have the andibodies and so don't need to worry. It's not the cheese that's the difference; according to my doctor friend, it's the tartare -- the raw beef and egg dish that is not only commonly on restaurant and bistro menus, it's also frequently served in homes.

In the US, they basically warn you that you can get toxoplasmosis from handling kitty litter, and seem to only worry about it if you have a cat. And then, the solution is, "Don't handle the kitty litter." Whereas in France, they test you for andibodies. To be fair, the French doctors also don't want pregnant women eating steak tartare, but I suppose they figure there will still be so much handling and serving of raw beef around them that exposure just can't be avoided completely.

In California, we were in the hospital 2 days for a "regular" birth and 4 days for Cesarean section. Here in France, it's 4 days and up to a week, respectively. Mystifyingly, the method of calculating the due date is even different, so that my friend is due 10 days later using the French system than the American system. I guess we'll be able to tell how American or French the baby is by when he chooses to be born.

And yes, French women are "allowed" to have a small, reasonable amount of wine during their pregnancies. Pregnant in Paris seems really quite civilized, but I'll have to take my friend's word for it, because, I assure you, I'm not going to experience it firsthand.

THE CHEESE: Tomme des Cabasses

Tomme des Cabasses is a raw, uncooked, pressed sheeps' milk cheese. It's a hard-to-find, rarely-made cheese, coming from -- as far as I can tell -- just one farmhouse in the department of Aveyron, at the northeastern point of the Midi-Pyrénées, which is the southwestern corner of France. The fromagerie of Les Cabasses is located in the natural park of the Grands Causses and specializes in delicious sheep cheeses.

This one is no different: delicious. It's a hard, salty, nutty cheese, kind of in the vein of a Parmesan. It's got some moisture so, though hard, is not crumbly. While it strongly suggests nature, grazing pastureland, and the farm, it's not overpoweringly sheep-y.


In the US, this cheese would be verboten for a pregnant woman: besides the scary-blackish mold covering the outside, it's also an unpasteurized cheese. In France, on the other hand, this cheese is completely fair game for the pregnant ladies, because it's a hard, aged cheese.


  1. If find your post most interesting as I had the reverse experience : 2 first daughters born in France, and third one in the US (L.A.)
    And, although it was "some" time ago (let's keep this vague), every point you make I did wonder about.
    The worst being the 10 days discrepancy in the due date.

    As a result, my American obstetrician considered me "late" after 5 days, whereas my French doctor wouldn't have noticed anything wrong (still 5 days to go).
    My daughter's birth was thus artificially induced, which I still resent to this day !
    (don't ask me why, there was absolutely no consequence, but still …)

    As for the wine, I think it is wrong, even in small quantity.
    With the cheese (or raw meat, or seafood) listeria bacteria, it is a matter of statistical risk, whereas with alcohol, there is not even the shadow of a doubt, and who would allow even the tiniest amount of alcohol passing inside a baby brain in construction ? I am 100% in favor of the American strict prohibition !!

    1. The discrepancy in due date is the biggest mystery to me, too. That seems like a big enough difference than one of the countries should just notice that most of its babies are either coming very late, or very early.

      And I hear you on the alcohol. If the doctors say small amounts are fine, then I guess small amounts are fine, but I never wanted to risk it, either. It was easier for me just to avoid it entirely for the pregnancies than to worry about it.


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