Supreme Indeed

How important is cheese? Well, you would think that the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, might have some higher priorities, what with nuclear talks, a population on the edge of starvation, etc. Yet in the midst of all this, Kim Jong-un thought it worthwhile to send a delegation to the National Dairy Industry College (ENIL), based in Mamirolle in Franche-Comté, which is on the eastern side of France. The mission? A crash course in cheesemaking.

It turns out the Supreme Leader has a penchant for a good Emmental, which he acquired during a year studying in Switzerland as a youth, and North Korean cheesemaking apparently leaves much to be desired.

For a moment, the talk was heady — was this to be the beginning of “Fromage Diplomacy,” just as Ping Pong Diplomacy opened the way to China? Could political enemies find friendship figuratively marching through the holes of an Emmental cheese? Alas, we will never know.

Véronique Drouet, the director of ENIL, rejected the delegation’s request. She couched her rejection in practical terms, saying it seemed difficult to arrange reciprocity, whereby the school could send students to do internships in North Korea. She also noted it was a small school and foreign student education was not a focus. Yet one suspects that the idea money would be spent from the North Korean treasury to sate Kim Jong-un’s hankering for Swiss cheese, while the UN reports more than a quarter of North Korean children are chronically malnourished, was simply untenable.

The travails of the people of North Korea aside, the story reminds us of how incredibly lucky we are. Kim Jong-un’s situation, virtually unlimited power but not able to get his choice of food, was actually common throughout history. Charlemagne may have been a mighty king, but he could not dream of having the kind of foods that any of us can find in our local supermarket.

Next time you are in a food store, pause and look around. The ability to gather so much food from all corners of the world, so cheaply in one place at one time, is simply extraordinary.

If you are lucky enough to go to a great store with a great cheese department, the product represents a world of tastes and flavors all on one counter. You have the Old World and the New World. You have savory and sweet. And you might well remember you walk amidst an assortment that emperors have longed for, and, to this day, supreme leaders can’t make happen.