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The King of Cheese: 3 French Cheeses Vying for the Crown

The French have been wary, at times, of human kings -- consider the rough way they treated Louis the Last (XVI) -- but they've never shied from crowning kings of cheese. Below are three French contenders for the cheese throne, and the prominent voices that have lobbied for each.

1. EPOISSES: The cheese that was once banned on public transportation

Epoisses is not as old or renowned as Roquefort (see below); but it can boast a legitimate claim to the crown, thanks in part to two distinguished fans: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the influential 18th century gastronome, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the late emperor-king of just about everything. It was Brillat-Savarin, philosopher-gourmand, who dubbed Epoisses the king of cheeses -- a declaration not to be dismissed, considering the seriousness with which he regarded cheese. ("A desert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who has lost an eye," he wrote, not quite in jest.)

Napoleon, on the other hand, wasn't quite as careful or as cultivated in his taste: "I eat quickly and masticate little," he admitted. Still, he was an awfully powerful man -- a potentate to match Caesar and Charlemagne -- so when he favored a food, that opinion mattered; and he favored Epoisses. As the last man proclaimed king over most of Europe -- a man who confessed he "could never see a throne without feeling the urge to sit on it" -- perhaps Napoleon knew a sovereign cheese when he tasted one.

If you have the chance to taste some ripe, runny Epoisses, you might be surprised by its powerful odor, which has proven offensive to many. There are even rumors that it was banned on public transportation in France. Napoleon had his peculiarities -- but how, you might ask, could a sophisticated connoisseur like Savarin love a cheese that smelled to heaven? Well, legend has it that his culinary aesthetic was so enlarged, so distinguished, that he would carry dead birds around in his pockets so he could savor the aroma. That is the kind of man we are dealing with. To each his own.

2. ROQUEFORT: The preferred cheese of genius

This pungent and striking blue ewe's milk cheese has a long history and a formidable reputation. In fact, Julius Caesar may have been the first big shot to praise Roquefort, which he tasted while conquering Gaul in the first century B.C. Although Julius wasn't a "king" per se ("I am Caesar, not King," he told his subjects), he did have a few other titles including dictator-for-life, consul-for-life, imperator, father of the fatherland, and God. We can only assume his opinion on cheeses mattered.

After Rome's fall, Charlemagne "rediscovered" Roquefort for the Middle Ages. Following a battle with the Saracens in 778, Charlemagne stopped for a snack in Rouergue (the region of south-central France from which Roquefort hails). An abbot served some cheese to the monarch, who started picking out the greenish-blue bits with his dagger, assuming the mold to be a corruption. Noticing this, the abbot advised Charlemagne that the blue bits were the best part; Charlemagne ate, enjoyed, and ordered a couple of wagon-loads of the cheese delivered to his home every year.

In 1411, French king Charles VI, a.k.a. Charles the Well-loved, a.k.a. Charles the Mad, legally ensured Roquefort's regional identity, restricting its aging to the Caves of Combalou -- where it was first ripened, and still is today. It's uncertain whether Charles was lucid or bonkers when this decision was made; but it doesn't matter. Since then Roquefort's been adored by all the glutton kings of France, especially the later kings Louis.

All of that said, love of Roquefort has not been restricted to royalty; even rebels, revolutionaries, and intellectuals have admired it. Enlightenment philosopher Diderot (who famously suggested that kings should be strangled with the entrails of priests) declared that Roquefort "is indisputably the finest cheese in Europe". Rough-edged American novelist Henry Miller (who famously wrote some lurid things about love-making), had similar thoughts, claiming of Roquefort, "To eat this cheese one must have genius." Whatever that means.

3. BRIE: The cheese worth losing your head over

The story goes that Charlemagne discovered Brie exactly as he discovered Roquefort (although four years earlier). This time he was staying at an abbey in the region of Meaux and was offered a soft, white-rinded cheese. The monks caught him picking off the rind, aiming for the creamy interior; so they told their king to eat the cheese whole, crust and all. He did, and he liked it enough to order a couple of batches delivered each year to his castle in Aachen.

Another royal fan of Brie was Louis the XVI, the guillotined one. He hampered his own escape from the revolutionaries by insisting that his entourage stop for long and luxurious meals. He clearly wasn't used to thinking practically. It's said that the ill-fated monarch was caught at last while relishing, very slowly, some good Brie cheese at a tavern in Vernnes. Perhaps it was worth the beheading: different people have different priorities.

Other cheeses have had their royal endorsements; but of all the contenders for the kingship of cheese, Brie is the only one to be formally crowned by a unanimous vote of European aristocrats. After the Napoleonic Wars, representatives from every European power gathered in Vienna to rearrange their devastated continent. Reacting against all the violence caused by the French Revolution, the Congress of Vienna restored "legitimate" monarchies throughout Europe. And while they were naming kings of nations, why not name a king of cheeses? France's statesman, Talleyrand, proposed a friendly contest of cheeses to pass the time (and assert some nationalistic pride); the others assented, and brought in their nations' finest. England's Stilton, Switzerland's Emmenthal, Holland's Edam, and Italy's Gorgonzola were each enjoyed, assessed, and discussed in turn. Talleyrand remained silent until his own messenger arrived, bearing Brie de Meaux. As one historian records, "The Brie rendered its cream to the knife. It was a feast, and no one further argued the point." Without further ado, the Congress of Vienna declared Brie the Cheese of Kings and the King of Cheeses. Then they got back to redrawing borders.

Cheese expert David Clark is guest blogging with us all week! Be sure to check out his previous posts: 'Big Political Cheeses and the Riots They Caused' and 'The Maggot Cheese of the Mediterranean.'

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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