Call me a typical Millennial hipster if you will, but I’ve been a flexitarian since before the word flexitarian existed.
It all started with a misguided foray into vegetarianism (after reading an in-depth exploration of the steer industry by none other than Michael Pollan in the early years). It wasn’t the vegetarianism on the whole that was misguided, but mine was the kind that relied on fried fries with trans fats and nutrient-deficient pasta, off-season berries, and avocados imported from Mexico.
It wasn’t until I moved to France that everything changed.
I remember it well. I was seventeen, sitting in the dining room of a 70-year-old woman who hosted six girls, including me. Each of the other five had a plate adorned with a blue cord, a chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese before being breaded and fried. (It’s delicious, FWIW.)
My host mother looked at me.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I know about you.”
And she disappeared into the kitchen, to come out with a plate with a whole fish on it. I want to say whole. Eyes, head and all.
So what did this vegetarian do?
Eat it, of course.
It was the first moment I looked into the very real ramifications of the kind of mocking taunt that vegetarians know all too well: “It’s already dead. Why not just eat it? Logic never made perfect sense to me at the grocery store: reduced demand always seemed, even to this unqualified humanities student, like a good thing, and in fact, an increase in. flexitarianism has proven to be the driving force behind today’s plant-based meat market. But a baked fish on a plate, lovingly prepared by the hands of this woman who had opened her house to me, seemed like something I couldn’t refuse.
My vegetarianism quickly fell through, not because I couldn’t be bothered, but because that was just the start of my brushwork with how the French chose to interpret my vegetarian diet. Saying “I have been a vegetarian” in my adopted country for 13 years has led, on different occasions, to people serving me not only fish but chicken (“But ma’am, it is not red meat. ), Pork (“Not beef.”), Beef (“Not pork.”) And a sad carrot and tomato salad despite the fact that I have – and always have – eaten cheese. Flexitarianism has led me to delve deeply into the real reasons I chose to eat – or avoid – a given food: was it for human reasons? Environmental? Social impact? Did I not like it?
Living in France, in essence, has taught me to be more aware of what I eat, and to design the type of diet that I am today: mostly plants, with the exception of foods rooted in such a tradition. strong that to refuse it would be rudeness of the first order.
Oh. And the cheese.
(This is where some of you may call me a hypocrite.)
Although I have lived and written about food in France, these days I eat mostly plant foods. The meat I bought once always came directly from a farm through the locavore organization The Hive That Says Yes, but these days I only eat meat if it’s a) being served by a producer or b) in a restaurant where I know the chef is as intensely attentive to the supply as I am. If I eat fish at home, it’s usually sustainably caught anchovies; if i eat eggs, they often come from Henhouse, an organic producer who works with hens “too old” for traditional laying and therefore less productive. The purchase of Poulehouse prevents these hens from being slaughtered.
But cheese… cheese is one of my weaknesses.
I like cheese. I love the umami rich flavors and textures ranging from gooey to marshmallow to runny. I like those like Comté which melt like hard candy on the tongue; I like those like Epoisses which are better to keep in the garage so as not to offend the olfactory senses of the people who share your house.
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And professionally speaking, cheese is a huge part of what I do. Culinary guide and journalist, I built my career on my love of cheese.
But I also have strong human and environmental principles that extend to everything from the type of deodorant I use to how often I take short-haul flights. I decided that the years of burying my head in the sand on the question of cheese were finished. I had to take a closer look at my cheese habit.
The problem with cheese
The problems with cheese are manifold.
From a human point of view, industrial dairy is almost as bad as industrial beef. Dairy cows are fertilized over and over again; calves are abducted at birth and confined for their short life before being slaughtered. Typical American dairy cows are confined to a concrete barn their entire lives and are slaughtered after four or five years, when they become less productive.
From an environmental point of view, cheese is a fairly demanding commodity to produce. BBC food calculator for climate change, based on data from Oxford, shows that eating a 30-gram serving of cheese three to five times a week for a year generates 201 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions. (By comparison, eating a quarter-pound serving of beef at the same frequency generates 1,611 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions, about eight times more than this habit of cheese three times a week.)
Beef is much worse, yes, but cheese is still the culprit.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that while I was a vegetarian and ate cheese (and not bad), a lot of cheeses use animal rennet, an enzyme that comes from the stomach. of a beef calf, for coagulation, and is therefore not at all vegetarian.
How to eat cheese sustainably
For some experts, the only way to include cheese in a sustainable diet is not at all. These experts point to herbal options for refueling, and frankly, there are more than a handful to choose from these days. Whole Foods sells over 80 types of vegan cheese, and even here in France, there are quite a few producers of false mage make herbal options designed to appeal to even the most discerning Frenchman.
But there is another element of cheese that is essential to me as a journalist and turophile, and that is its history.
Here in France, we have more than 1000 kinds of cheese, made by producers big and small. There are cheeses that have stood the test of time, such as Cantal, which is almost 2000 years old; there are cheeses that were invented by undertaking cheese makers during confinement. There are cheeses such as Comté, whose annual production reaches 70,000 tons; there are cheeses so precise that only five people in the country make them. There are cheeses aged in natural volcanic caves and cheeses made from Bread mold. There is even a cheese, Maroilles, which was invented to replace meat in the 10th century.
This whole story seems to me to be worth preserving… despite the environmental ramifications.
So I chose to eat cheese, but not as often as I would like. I choose raw milk versions, tastier and more healthy, and which, as Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, notes, only reduces the waste involved in the destruction of natural dairy flora to replace them with artificial enzymes.
I only eat cheese made from grass-fed animals – the norm in France, but also small producers in the United States I actively seek out producers relying on renewable energy or those enrolled in programs like the Green Dairy Cohort, which aims to help producers reduce their environmental impact.
I keep abreast of new research and developments that further reduce the impact of cheese, such as the Dutch solutions to reduce water wastage and even to ferment a vegetarian rennet from Kluyveromyces lactis yeast, thus eliminating the dependence on calves .
I choose local cheeses from producers I know (or from producers my cheese maker knows!), And I savor each bite, prioritizing quality over quantity.
I’m not saying my solution is perfect. But as Voltaire once wrote, “Perfection is the enemy of good”. And there are a lot of cheese producers who are making a very good work.
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