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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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!