French cheese causes a stink at US customs

A specialty French cheese has provoked a cross-Atlantic row after US customs officials refused to allow almost a tonne of it into the country, citing concern over “allergies”.

French cheese causes a stink at US customs
File photo of a slice of mimolette cheese. Photo: Sarah Nichols

An American blockade of mimolette, a bright orange cheese traditionally made in the northern city of Lille, has sparked a mini-furore among importers, merchants and cheese-lovers.

“We’ve been importing mimolette for 20 years, but since the start of March, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) inspectors have been giving us a hard time,” Benoit de Vitton from the company Isigny Saint-Mère, one of the companies affected, told AFP.

A warehouse in New Jersey now holds between 500 and 700 kg of the quarantined cheese, to the frustration of importers like de Vitton.

Mimolette – known as ‘boule de Lille’ – in France, contains mites, deliberately introduced to the grey surface of the cheese, to refine its flavour.

FDA agents have claimed that the tiny tick-like creatures could cause allergic reactions, and refused to allow the cheese to pass to its final destination at specialist cheese shops across the country.

James Coogan, the owner of the Ideal Cheese Shop in Manhattan, New York expressed his bafflement to AFP.

“The mites have always been in the cheese. It’s crazy to block it for that reason,” said Coogan.

When de Vitton pointed out this fact to a federal official, he was told simply: “The level of mites in the cheese exceeds the authorized level,” although the FDA inspector was not able to tell de Vitton what the ‘authorized level’ was.

The blockade has sparked a small-scale international row among cheese-lovers and mimolette-enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic.

A Facebook group called “Save the mimolette” was set up on April 4th, and has more than 470 followers aghast at the prospect that their beloved cheese has become a public enemy in the United States.

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Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?