French cheese under threat from mass production and ‘bacteriological correctness’

50 species of French cheese to have vanished in the past four decades

John Lichfield
Sunday 06 December 2015 02:16 GMT
The days are numbered for artisanal cheeses made with lait cru
The days are numbered for artisanal cheeses made with lait cru

Search where you will in the most exclusive cheese shops in France and you will no longer find a bleu de Termignon, a vacherin d’Abondance or a galette des Monts-d’Or.

They are among 50 species of French cheese to have vanished in the past four decades. Could better known cheeses, such as brie de Meaux, or crottin de Chavignol or bleu d’Auvergne, follow them into gastronomic oblivion?

Last week, Prince Charles, while visiting the COP21 global climate conference in Paris, declared his love for Pont-L’Evêque and other French cheese made in the traditional manner with lait cru or raw, unpasteurised milk. He warned that their survival was threatened by the “bacteriological correctness” of European and national food safety regulation.

Is he right? Oui et non. But mostly oui. Only about 10 per cent of the cheese now consumed in France is “genuine” – in other words, made with untreated milk. Consumption of lait cru cheeses has been falling by 4 per cent a year.

Even many of the French cheeses labelled, like fine wines, as “origin controlled” are mass-produced with pasteurised or heat-treated milk. They have the old names, but a fraction of the taste and character, say critics. Real cheese producers and campaigners confirm a growing threat from fussy EU and domestic health regulation. But they say the real menace comes from the greed and corner-cutting of France’s large and powerful dairy companies.

“Many thanks to Prince Charles,” said Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president of the Association Fromages de Terroirs. “But I find it shameful that French politicians and personalities should say nothing while the heir to the British [throne] speaks out so powerfully.”

Hervé Mons, an award-winning producer and worldwide marketer of authentic French cheeses, told The Independent on Sunday: “We are under pressure to apply the same standards to artisanal as to factory-made cheese. 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.”

Ms Richez-Lerouge says the erosion of authentic French cheese is part of a “wider, national hypocrisy”. Successive French governments, she says, 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”.

President Charles de Gaulle complained that it was impossible to govern a country with “265 different kinds of cheese”. In fact, depending how you count them, there are (or were) at least 700, and maybe as many as 1,000 types of French cheese.

Ten years ago, I visited Célina Gagneux, the last manufacturer of vacherin d’Abondance, a rich, creamy cheese so soft it had to be eaten with a spoon. She had just retired, ending a 200-year unbroken tradition of cheese-making in the mountains on the French side of Lake Geneva.

She said: “When I was a girl, there were 30 people or more who made vacherin in this valley. Now they’ve all died or stopped. They make the Abondance cheese, a firmer cheese, because that’s what the big buyers want. How can you blame them?”

Ms Richez-Lerouge, the real- cheese campaigner, says there is also a more subtle threat to the survival of France’s cheese tradition. The industry giants are moving into the “origin controlled” market and imposing rule changes to allow pasteurised cheeses to be sold with the appellation contrôlée label.

In Normandy, a handful of traditional camembert producers resisted, Asterix like, and fought off the agro-giants. The close cousins of camembert, Livarot and Pont-L’Evêque, have succumbed.

You can now buy a pasteurised Pont-L’Evêque which carries the “authentic” origin-controlled label – a contradiction in terms to the purists. If you want to buy a “real” French cheese, it must state on the label that it was made with lait cru.

Mr Mons, the cheese trader from Roanne in central France, says the threat is not the disappearance of great names such as cantal or camembert. “The real danger – and the reality in many cases – is their conversion into something bland and characterless, which betrays our traditions.”

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