Apr 18, 2015

An Elusive Hometown: Briquette d'Auvergne


When a French person asks me the seemingly simple question, "Where in the United States are you from?," I realize just how American I really am. Because it's such a simple question, but I have such a complicated answer -- an answer that is so foreign to the French.

Where am I from? Well, I was born in Detroit, but moved to Rochester, NY when I was two and lived there till I was 12. Then I did most of junior high and high school in Minneapolis, MN, and when I went off to Princeton, my parents moved to Kalamazoo, MI. Yes! Kalamazoo is a real place, and real people actually have lived there, though my parents don't live there anymore and have been in the Boston area for quite a while now.

After Princeton, I spent a year in Taiwan, about 6 years in Japan, a year in the Philippines, a year in Hawaii, and finally moved to San Francisco, where I lived for 14 years before coming to Paris.

I have no relatives, or family homes, in any of the cities I lived in growing up, and I only have relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area by complete coincidence, since my cousin moved there a few years after me, and his parents recently joined him from the East Coast. My siblings don't live in the same city as my parents, and not even -- at any given point -- on the same coast, or continent.

San Francisco is the place I've lived the longest and know the best. It's where I met my husband, had my children, bought our first house. So, I say I'm from San Francisco, but a "real, native" San Franciscan would certainly tell you otherwise.

Meanwhile, the French people all have a place they are from -- usually in the countryside. It's a simple question, with a one-word -- or maximum one phrase -- answer. Even a born-and-bred Parisian whose family has lived many generations in Paris will still claim another, more remote, non-Paris hometown. Ask a French person where they're from, and it's easy: they grew up there, their parents probably still live there, and whether or not their parents live there, they probably have a family home there. My Parisian friends are from Auvergne, Montpellier, the Vendée, the Jura, Chamonix, and small towns throughout the country.

Once, in class, the teacher asks kids who aren't 100% French to raise their hand: one friend of Pippa's, who is born and bred in Paris (as were her parents) and is a French citizen raised hers. Why? Because she's not French; she's Bretonne (from Bretagne), through one of her parents. She's also from the Dordogne, and spends virtually every school vacation and all summer there, with her grandparents. You can understand her confusion, but at least she's got a sense of hometown, somewhere.

I realize there are some American families who all live in the same city and have more of a hometown sense than I do. But I know I'm not alone in my level of transplantation, either: of my best friends from high school, most live out of state (some out of country), and many of their families do, too.

So when you ask me where I'm from, and I answer, "The U.S.," I'm not trying to be cagy. I'm just not French enough to have a good answer.

THE CHEESE: Briquette d'Auvergne

The Briquette d'Auvergne is a raw goats' milk cheese from Cantal, in the region of Auvergne, in southern-central France. Cantal is more famous as the home of the cheese called Cantal, a sweet-nutty cows' cheese that's a forerunner to Cheddar.

This is not to be confused with Brique d'Auvergne, despite the fact that both names mean a "Brick from Auvergne". But the Brique d'Auvergne is a mixed cow-goat milk cheese.

The Briquette d'Auvergne -- all goat, all the time -- is a goopy briquette, thick and thirst-inducing. It's got a wonderful balance of salt, farm-iness, sweet milk, and flowers.


None of my Parisian friends are actually from Paris -- if you ask them -- many of them despite living her all their lives here and doing all their schooling here. One of my good friends, like this cheese, is d'Auvergne,  "from Auvergne"  in central southern France. Anytime we happen to be here over a break and want to get the kids together to play, it turns out they are going down to Auvergne to visit their grandparents and go "back" to their ancestral "home". If I were French, of course, I wouldn't put all those words in quotation marks.


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