Liberte! Fraternite! Fromage!

A new crisis is dividing France. Cheese. In particular, the soft, smelly unpasteurised cheese of French legend. Can it kill you? Does listeria hysteria mean death to an entire culture? And how reliable is the science behind the scare? By John Lichfield

Gerard Poulard is a magician. After the main dish has been cleared away at the Montparnasse 25 restaurant, he arrives at your table like a conjuror, pushing a wheeled cabinet. From within, he produces, with a flourish, the whole of the French countryside, from Maroilles in the mournful north to Roquefort in the empty, mountainous south west: a colourful and fragrant explosion of 120 to 150 kinds of French cheese.

Mr Poulard is one of the best, and certainly the most erudite and entertaining, master cheese-waiters in Paris. He will list not only the names of the cheeses but also the names of the people who make them. He will explain the season when it is best to eat a certain cheese and why. (Goats' cheese is best in spring, when the soft grass is up on the hills of Burgundy or the Auvergne; Camembert in the early summer, when the Normandy grass is at its most lush.)

This week, Mr Poulard agreed to reverse roles. I visited him at the Montparnasse 25 (among the friendliest of starred Michelin restaurants) with my own selection of cheeses: typical supermarket offerings, heat-treated, plastic- wrapped but not necessarily cheap. I wanted him to help me to understand a great gastronomic-hygienic-political debate which has been raging in the French press, and the French supermarket aisle, since the beginning of the year.

What is the definition of a genuine, and typically French, soft cheese? Can the traditional soft cheese, made with raw milk, kill you? Is the infinite variety of French cheeses - one of the great achievements of French culture - threatened with a thinning out, a dumbing down, by a conspiracy between French officialdom, the European Commission, the United States and the mass cheese-makers?

Mr Poulard cheerfully consented to try my selection. Taking a slice of one of the best-selling mass-produced, heat-treated Camemberts (President), he swung his knife gently from side to side, and then around in slow circles, as he considered its taste and texture. His face was impassive but his eyes seemed to contain a profound sadness; this was the look of a man whose suspicions had been, miserably, confirmed.

"This cheese is very interesting," he said. "For children. This is the kind of cheese that you could eat and then leave immediately for an assignation with your mistress without fear of being rejected.

"This is the perfect cheese for someone who expects to kiss someone before the night is over. In other words, this is a perfectly good and honourable cheese except that it is bland, almost odourless, almost tasteless. It is a cheese for people who don't like cheese."

Cheese is a French paradox. 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, its restrictions of choice. And yet France has devised hundreds of ways of turning cows', sheep's and goats' milk into something called cheese: all different, all delicious.

Charles de Gaulle once famously said that it was impossible to govern a country with 365 different kinds of cheese. He understated the problem. There are officially recognised to be 394 types of French cheese and some obstinate "fromageologues" (cheesologists) reckon that, taking sub-varieties into account, there are more than 1,000.

America, the home of liberty and choice, is the world's biggest cheese producer, churning out twice as much cheese as France. But can you name a single American cheese? They do exist but they tend to be rubberised, over-processed versions of European cheeses, best used as doorstoppers or shock-absorbers.

Now, many French cheese traditionalists, including Mr Poulard, fear that France is heading inexorably in the same direction, or may be unless something is done. "If you look at this trolley," said Mr Poulard, "you are looking at a wonderful array of flavours, odours, soils, climates, techniques, handed down and refined over centuries. You may also be looking at a museum piece. As the law now stands, many of these cheeses are doomed to vanish."

Since 1 January of last year, EU regulations, transposed into a new French law, have made it illegal to sell a cheese that contains the merest trace of the listeria germ, which exists widely in everything around us but can cause serious food-poisoning among people with reduced resistance (the young, the elderly, the pregnant). Since 1 January of this year, any discovery of listeria in cheese has to be announced in the press and the batch in question must be withdrawn from the market.

In January there was a genuine and serious case of listeriosis in France, which killed two people, including a newborn baby who had been infected in the womb. The outbreak was traced to a factory in Burgundy making a rich, soft cheese called Epoisses. The factory - long accused by other local cheese-makers of taking short-cuts with safety methods - was closed, and 200,000 cheeses were destroyed.

The French public did not distinguish one brand of Epoisses from another. Sales of all Epoisses cheeses plunged by 70 per cent and have barely recovered three months later. The other producers - there are only half a dozen altogether - are barely surviving. Epoisses, a centuries-old cheese that was revived commercially in the Fifties, and is sometimes known as "the king of cheeses", may soon cease to exist, like some rare species of Amazonian beetle or butterfly.

Since January, there have been a series of listeria "finds" in other soft cheeses, none of which has produced sickness or death. The finds have been widely, and sometimes misleadingly, publicised, partly because of the incident in Burgundy, partly because of the new regulations. With each announcement, sales of the cheeses involved - St-Felicien, Moroilles and unpasteurised Camembert - have plummeted.

The general impression left by these scares - despite several careful articles in the French press; less so items on television - is that there is suddenly a health problem with the traditional French soft, runny cheese made from lait cru, or raw, unpasteurised milk. In fact, this is the reverse of the truth: all of the cheeses in which listeria germs were found (save one, to which we will return) were heat-treated cheeses. In other words, they were more like the kinds of supermarket cheeses I brought to Mr Poulard.

And yet it is the raw-milk cheeses that are suffering in the shops. What is going on?

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 of many soft cheeses. 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 bacteria naturally occurring in the cheese. 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 used to make the cheese (including penicillin spray to replicate the white rind). The effect is a duller, more uniform, unsmelly cheese (like the bland- but-romantic Camembert I served to Mr Poulard).

The second, less drastic heating method - which Mr Poulard approves of, within limits - allows cheese to be created in larger quantities but preserves more of its character and flavour. Almost all Camembert that advertises itself as being made with lait cru is in fact mildly heat-treated in this way. Put another way, the traditional, genuine, raw-milk Camembert, which was invented by Madame Marie Harel 208 years ago, has already virtually ceased to exist.

The problem is that both forms of heat treatment also kill the natural defence bacteria in the cheese. The "processed" cheese is therefore vulnerable to listeria attack at a later stage. Supporters of the raw-milk cheese say that the conventional wisdom - pasteurised means healthy - is the reverse of the truth. The "cleaner" a cheese is, the more dangerous it can become.

Almost all the cheeses that have fallen foul of the new law so far had been heat-treated in one way or another (including the rogue killer Epoisses, which was pasteurised). The one genuine raw-milk cheese to have been in trouble was a St-Felicien. When the batch was checked a second and third time, the listeria was found to have gone: destroyed by the cheese's own internal defence mechanism.

None the less, sales of St-Felicien have fallen by 70 per cent. Makers and supporters of the raw-milk cheese say that a historic and gastronomic injustice is being committed. The new regulations followed pressure from the US (which is now having second thoughts) but also lobbying by the big EU dairy companies, including French ones. The requirement for listeria- free cheese favours the pasteurised cheese-makers since, in theory, the raw and "thermised" milk cheeses are more likely to fall foul of the law.

To try to stay, even notionally, within the law, small, traditional cheese- producers are having to invest tens of thousands of pounds in new equipment. None the less, small doses of listeria will often be present - and harmlessly present - in traditional soft cheeses. The prospect of a whole series of damaging scares lies ahead. The premise - pasteurised healthy, unpasteurised dangerous - is now so deeply implanted in the public mind that few consumers, even French consumers, have noticed that it is the heat-treated cheeses that are causing the real difficulties.

The problem has been compounded by insensitive, and sometimes misleading, application of the laws by the French government machine, which is in the throes of a food-safety turf war between the ministries of agriculture and health.

Mr Poulard is not the only person to suspect an industrial "plot" to squash traditional French cheeses, which had, until now, been rapidly increasing their share of the market. This may be going a little too far. It seems more to be a case of bureaucratic heavy-handedness, compounded by misunderstanding by consumers. There is, however, a case for the EU directive, at the origin of the problem, to be urgently reviewed.

To make his case, Mr Poulard might consider sending to each member of the new European Commission a small piece of Clacbitout, a goats' cheese from his trolley that we tasted after mine had been dumped in the bin. The cheese, which comes from Burgundy, resembles its homeland: On trying it, you encounter ridge after rolling ridge of taste, each as beautiful as the last.

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