When I first moved to France, I lived in the North. Known for being cold and rather dreary, the North isn’t a region that many visit by choice, especially given the fact that Paris is already fairly northern – any further, and you’re nearly in Belgium. If people decide to venture somewhere outside of Paris, it’s far more likely they’ll head south of Paris: to the Loire, to Bordeaux, or to the true South and the Côte d’Azur.
I didn’t choose the North because I was clamoring to see it. I knew nothing about it, had yet to discover its coal mining history and its nearly constant steady mist of rain all through the winter months. I chose it because the foreign exchange program at my school had two options: Nantes, in equally rainy but slightly more touristic Brittany, and Bondues, in the North. The latter was the only option in which we got to stay with a homestay family – and that’s exactly what I wanted.
This was my first real brush with France – it’s still strange for me to think that if I hadn’t gone to the North, I might not be here at all. My life would look completely different. I feel that I owe a lot of that to my homestay family. They were keen to ask me questions, even though they knew it would take me several minutes to form an answer. They took me to visit the city of Lille, the fourth largest in France and the capital of the region now known as Hauts-de-France.
Oh, and yeah, they introduced me to a lot of French food.
Maroilles is a decidedly funky washed-rind cow’s milk cheese and the only product made in the North to benefit from an AOC label – the label that protects certain terroir products like cheese, wine, and even certain fruits and vegetables like Grenoble walnuts or Puy lentils. But while it’s one of the most famous exports of the region, I actually never tried it while I lived there.
Image care of Ferme du Pont aux Loups
My host family did notice that I was a fan of strong cheese – in fact, my host mother was quite pleased to see that I liked Roquefort, because as the only fan of bleu in her house, she finally had an excuse to buy it – but for some reason, this local specialty never popped up on the dinner table or in the plastic cheese box that lived in the garage (and yes, every French family has one of these, including me.)
In fact, it wasn’t until I saw Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis that I even knew what Maroilles was.
In the film, a native of Provence, in the South of France, ends up being transferred to the dreaded Nord and encounters Maroilles for breakfast, as his host, Antoine, dunks it in coffee.
It’s definitely an assertive cheese (my favorite cheesemonger says that no cheese is “strong,” but some are “powerful”). I got to learn quite a bit more about Maroilles recently – including what it’s like to dunk it in coffee –, when I wrote a story on the cheese for Vice Munchies. (Amongst other things, I discovered that Maroilles owes its unique square shape to the fact that wood in the North wasn’t supple enough to create the round molds used to make most cheeses.)
While I never got to try Maroilles in the North, it’s since become a bit of a family favorite, especially with my aunt, who had me smuggle a bit of it back to America for her the last time I visited. I got it vacuum-sealed, to keep it from stinking up my bag.