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The slow death of French cheese The real battle for the immortal soul of France is about something far more important than pension reform and yellow vests

Unique species of cheese are going extinct because they can't be mass-produced. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

Unique species of cheese are going extinct because they can't be mass-produced. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

February 17, 2020   6 mins

In his small fromagerie at Saint Point Lac in the Jura, Fabrice Michelin produces authentic, hand-made, raw-milk Mont d’Or cheeses. He is the last person in France to do so — the last in a line of local cheese-makers which goes back for centuries.

“I get up at 5am. I collect the milk myself from the farms in the village. I warm the milk,” Mr Michelin told me. “I scoop it carefully into cylinders. I pay attention to the varying consistency and taste of the curd. It alters subtly with the seasons, depending on the qualities of the grass. I mold the cheeses by hand. Every cheese is a little different.”

Individual, artisanal cheeses? Wonderful.

Not any more, it seems.

“That’s what gets me into trouble these days,” M. Michelin said. “Brussels and Paris say that the cheeses must all be the same. There seem to be new rules every month. How can I carry on if all my cheeses have to be identical?”

Forget the yellow vests. Forget the strikes against pension reform. The real battle for the immortal soul of France is about something far more important — cheese.

The infinite variety of French cheeses — one of the finest achievements of French culture — is gradually being eroded and dumbed down. Only one in ten of the cheeses now consumed in France is made with raw-milk or “lait cru” in the authentic manner.

Search where you like in the finest cheese shops in France, you will no longer find a Bleu de Termignon or a Galette des Monts-d’Or. They are among 50 species of French cheese that have vanished, like rare flowers or butterflies, in the last 40 years. Other varieties, like Vacherin d’Abondance and M. Michelin’s hand-made Mont d’Or have been reduced to a single producer.

Many of the best-known French cheeses — Brie or Pont L’Evêque or Camembert — thrive at home and abroad, but they are overwhelmingly made in large factories with pasteurised or sterilised milk. To purists, that is a betrayal of the French tradition of “living cheese”.

In a “lait cru” or raw milk cheese, good and bad bacteria cancel each another out, generating a depth of taste (and pungency) unparalleled in their factory-made step-sisters. Pasteurised-milk cheese is, to quote one of France’s greatest fromagologues, Gérard Poulard, “fine for someone who expects to kiss someone before the night is over…. It is a cheese for people who don’t like cheese.”

But the first weeks of 2020 have brought welcome news for people who do like French cheeses — and like them genuine, non-romantic and smelly.

Since the 1990s, Normandy has been riven by a quarrel about what kinds of cheeses should be called “Camembert de Normandie”. In 2018, the quarrel seemed to have been “settled” in favour of the “Big Cheeses” —  France’s mass-production dairy industry. But a few days ago, the decision was overturned by a conference of Norman cheese-makers and milk producers.

The right to use the magic words appellation d’origine protégée”  and “Camembert de Normandie” will remain limited to a half-dozen small or medium factories — Gillot, Reo, Jort and others — which use raw milk, spooned into molds by hand.

Under the previous ruling, mass-made, pasteurised camemberts would have also used those cherished words under stringent conditions. The raw-milk camemberts would have been given a separate status as “véritable camembert de Normandie”.

Some French defenders of raw-milk cheeses liked that idea of a “split appellation”. They hoped that it would boost the quality of some generic, pasteurised, supermarket camemberts. They said that it would provide higher income to Norman dairy farmers, while giving the raw-milk camemberts their own badge of authenticity and quality. It would remove a legally doubtful anomaly that allows mass-produced camemberts, made from milk from all over France and beyond, to be marketed as “fabriqué en Normadie”.

Véronique Richez-Lerouge — founder-president of the pressure group, Fromages de Terroirs and the “Joan of Arc of traditional French cheese” — disagrees, pungently.

“This was a great victory for real French cheese,” Ms Richez-Lerouge said. “Splitting the Normandy appellation in two would have meant the slow death of the remaining genuine raw-milk camemberts. That would have been disastrous for other traditional cheeses. Whenever pasteurised cheeses have been allowed to use the appellation d’origine protégée elsewhere, they have gobbled up the market for raw milk cheeses.”

Cheese is a powerful symbol of French identity, both to the French and to foreigners. The sheer number and variety of the kinds of French cheese — far more than any other country — sums up France’s cussedness and its infinite, culinary imagination.

Charles de Gaulle said that it was impossible to govern a country with “265 different kinds of cheese”, and he hugely understated the problem. Depending on how you count them, there are at least 700 and maybe more than 1,000 types of cheese in France.

Remember the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”? It was first used jokingly by The Simpsons but it was rapidly adopted by American — and British — enthusiasts for the 2003 Iraq war as a way of suggesting the French were a bunch of hedonists, more interested in their bellies than their souls.

In truth, the variety of French cheese poses a conundrum for French-bashers. Here we have a country that is mocked by the clever, freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons for its statist impulses, its suspicion of the market place, its over-regulation and restrictions on choice. And yet France has devised hundreds of ways of turning cow, sheep and goat milk into something called cheese: all different, all delicious.

They are not only different but, as M. Michelin in the Jura pointed out, different at different times of the year. Goats’ cheese is best in spring, when the soft grass is up on the hills of Burgundy or the Auvergne; Camembert is best in the early summer, when the Normandy grass is at its most lush. These subtle changes are, however, obliterated in the processes which make industrial, pasteurised cheese.

If you go into any American supermarket, you will see 100 kinds of peanut butter which all taste the same. Ditto for biscuits in Britain. What the modern world calls “choice” mostly comes down to marketing and labelling.

Unfortunately, this is also increasingly true of cheese in France. This assault on national character and identity is sometimes blamed on the European Union, but according to Mme Richez-Lerouge, it is only partially the fault of Brussels. The most constraining dairy rules have been encouraged by successive French governments, she says, urged on by the three large companies which dominate the French milk and cheese industry.

Hervé Mons, a cheese trader and maker in Roanne in central France, agrees. “We are under pressure to apply the same standards to artisanal cheese as factory-made cheese,” he said. “There is no justification on health or other grounds. The dairy industry lobbies for standards which would rob cheese of all true character and  quality — in other words, impose the kind of cheese that they can make cheaply.”

Mme Richez-Lerouge says that the erosion of authentic French cheese is part of a “wider, national hypocrisy”. For decades, she says, French governments have extolled the virtues of small-scale farming and quality food while “shovelling 80 per cent of European subsidies into the pockets of big farmers and the agro-industry”.

The French dairy giants, she says, encourage the belief that pasteurised cheese is “safe” and raw-milk cheeses are “risky”. Scientific studies suggest that, as long as raw-milk cheese is well-made, it is less dangerous than many other foods, from hamburgers to pasteurised cheese.

The traditional French soft, runny cheese is made with untreated milk, maintained at the temperature at which it leaves the cow’s udder (37C). There is no attempt made to kill off all bacteria, since the bacteria are what makes the cheese, including the lovely, chalky white flore — a form of fungus — which appears naturally on the rind.

There will almost certainly be listeria germs in the cheese at some stage — since listeria is everywhere — but they will be fought and defeated by other naturally occurring bacteria.  If this were not so, soft cheese would have been poisoning people for centuries.

Enormous care is, however, needed to preserve the quality of the raw milk before, and while, the cheese is made. It is impossible — or impossibly expensive — to make soft cheese with untreated milk on an industrial scale. Large manufacturers, in France as elsewhere, have therefore adopted “pasteurisation” — heating milk to 72C — or “thermisation” — which means heat treatment at 67C.

The first destroys all the natural bacteria, good and bad, and therefore much of the variety and depth of taste. Controlled bacteria are introduced by the factory to simulate the natural process of cheese-making (including penicillin spray to replicate the white rind). But, of course, it’s not the same.

Campaigning by Mme Richez-Lerouge and others has slowed the march of industrial cheese with traditional French names in the last decade. In some years, the market share for lait cru cheeses has edged up — only to edge down again. The avalanche of regulation continues.

“I don’t understand why they want us to be all the same and why they want all my cheeses to be the same,” said M. Michelin, who makes 13 other kinds of cheese apart from his unique Mont d’Or.

“Of course, there is a place for factory cheese but many people also value things that are authentic and individual. There is nothing more individual than a real cheese.”

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.


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Jerry W
Jerry W
4 years ago

All I know is that the most appalling stomach problems I have ever had were as a direct result of eating soft French cheese made with unpasteurised milk. I thought I was going to die. Hard cheese is different but do watch out for soft unpasteurised cheese ..