Apr 14, 2017

Keeping It in the Family: Belle-Mère


In the Albanian language (or so I am told...), a brother-in-law that is your sister's husband is not the same word as a brother-in-law who is your husband's brother. That makes sense to me, because they're different relationships, so why should they have the same name? English always seems to have a deficit of relationship names. Well, it turns out, French is even worse.

I learn this -- as I learn most of my French language lessons -- the hard way. On a tour in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, the guide tells us a story of the famous writer Colette (born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) buried there. And I learn about an infamous scandal: she slept with her beau-fils. I understand that to mean she slept with her daughter's husband, her son-in-law.

But, in fact, it turns out that at the age of 47, she slept with her beau-fils, her step-son -- her husband's 16-year old son, that is -- possibly as revenge for her husband's affairs. The relationship with her stepson lasted five years, during which time she wrote two novels, Cheri and The Last of Cheri, in which an approximately 50 year old woman has a love affair with a much younger man (but in the novel, he's an adult aged 24, and un-related by blood or marriage).

Colette was refused a Catholic burial, taking into account her two divorces, a publicly known lesbian affair, and extramarital sex with her step-son. But she was the first French female writer to be given a state funeral, and then was buried among the greats at Père-Lachaise.

At least in English, we can differentiate between a mother-in-law and a step-mother. The French language simply does not do that: Both are called a belle-mère which translates word for word as "beautiful-mother". That's certainly a nicer image of a mother-in-law than the usual portrayal. Likewise, father-in-law and stepfather (beau-père); sibling-in-law and stepsibling (belle-soeur, beau-frère); child-in-law and stepchild (belle-fille or beau-fils).

I feel a certain affinity for Colette -- a writer, actress, and journalist who penned the book "Gigi" -- the same name as my belle fille (that is, beautiful daughter, not belle-fille which would be step-daughter or daughter-in-law). But I can't tell you if I think it's worse to sleep with your husband's son or your daughter's husband. I can tell you that in my mind, the icky factor is different depending on which interpretation of "beau-fils" I imagine. In fact, it might just be best not to imagine it at all.

THE CHEESE: Belle-Mère

Belle-Mère is not just one but two cheeses: one made in Normandie, FranceThe other is a Canadian cheese, with the same name but an entirely different cheese, by the Fromagerie Médard in Quebec run by a 5th generation farmer, coincidentally named Normand Côté.

Belle-Mere, the French version, is a pasteurized cows' milk cheese with a speckled white and brown mold crust. The interior is a hard cheese, very tall and very dense, that crumbles upon contact. The cheese has a hint of Maroilles in it, a bit of a stinky funk encouraged during the aging process.

Just for your info: The Canadian version is a very different looking, semi-hard cheese made of pasteurized milk from a herd of Swiss Brown cows that pasture outside in the summer and eat hay inside in the cold winters. It's got an orange-brown crust that is said to have hints of almond and honey. It was a finalist in the 2016 edition and winner of the 2012 concest Sélection Caseus in the category of semi-hard cheeses with a washed crust. It was also a recent finalist in the 2016 Contest of Fine Canadian Cheeses (Concours des Fromages Fins Canadiens) in three categories: semi-hard cheeses, best farmhouse cheeses, and best cheeses from Quebec.
photo from: https://www.fromagesdici.com/repertoire/la-belle-mere


A lovely cheese, Belle-Mère -- and actually two different cheeses, much like the word "Belle-Mère" has two different meanings. Is it a step-mother cheese (cartoonishly evil)? Or a mother-in-law cheese (sharp tongued)? Since it is named in French, there's simply no way to know; you'll have to decide for yourself.


  1. If I may ... : beau-fils and beau-père !
    And do you know that, for all this lack of precision, French has a name for "unrelated siblings" brought up together in a "famille recomposée" : "quasi-frère" and "quasi-soeur" (source : Fratrie, Wikipedia)

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