France, allegedly a nation of "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", is slowly surrendering its authentic tradition of making cheese. Yesterday, "real" cheese-lovers and producers struck back.
In an attempt to alert the nation to the gradual disappearance of its splendid and varied cheese heritage, hundreds of events were held across France to celebrate National Cheese Day.
"In the past 30 years, more than 50 varieties of French cheese have disappeared for ever. Other types are down to their last two or three traditional producers," said Véronique Richez-Lerouge, head of the association which promotes traditional French cheeses. "The share of the market taken by industrial, pasteurised cheeses, which are actually fake cheeses, with a fraction of the true taste and character, is growing all the time."
French cheeses made traditionally and authentically - that is with "lait cru", or raw, unpasteurised milk - are now down to 5 or 6 per cent of the market. A national calamity threatens, which most French people don't even knowing is happening."
President Charles de Gaulle once famously said that it was impossible to govern a country with 365 different kinds of cheese. This was an understatement. France has at least 600 distinct kinds of cheese. Some "fromagophiles" insist that it has more than 1,000. Only Italy can begin to match that kind of diversity.
Traditional French cheeses came in hundreds of different types, partly because of the variety of landscapes and climates in France, partly because of the national devotion to culinary excellence, and experimentation. Mrs Richez- Lerouge, president of the Fromages de Terroirs association, says that this heritage is threatened by a "bland homogenisation of tastes", and by overbearing and unnecessary hygiene rules, imposed by the European Union and interpreted with "excessive zeal" by the French state. "You cannot expect a small, one-farm cheesemaker to obey exactly the same norms as a factory," she complained. "That does not mean that farm-made cheese is somehow inferior or unhealthy. Quite the opposite."
Yet the big cheese companies have encouraged consumers to believe that pasteurised, mass-produced cheese is "safe", and that "raw-milk" cheese is a breeding-ground for listeria and other ailments. And the difference in taste between, say, a pasteurised and a raw milk camembert is vast - equivalent to the difference between a bottle of plonk and a vintage claret.
Gallette des Monts d'Or, a creamy cow's cheese, was produced in hills near Lyons for 400 years. Last summer the final producer died, and the cheese died with him. Mrs Richez-Lerouge says that the same fate awaits another cheese, the beautifully named Vacherin d'Abondance, from the Alps of the Haute Savoie. Only three elderly farmer-cheesemakers remain. None of them has a successor.
Throughout France yesterday, specialist cheese shops and the gourmet departments of large stores, such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris, organised street parties with sales and free tastings of raw-milk cheeses to promote awareness of France's cheese heritage. "All is far from lost," said Mrs Richez-Lerouge. "We hope to re-introduce the French, and afterwards the British and others, to the treasures that have come down to us over the centuries."
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