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Fears in France that Camembert truce will lead to cheese ruin

A truce has been reached to bring an end to the Camembert wars that have plagued one of France's most pungent cheese for a decade, but some say the quality of the famous fromage will never be as good.

Fears in France that Camembert truce will lead to cheese ruin
Photo: AFP
A decade-long war over France's famous Normandy Camembert cheese was brought to and end this week but not everyone is welcoming the peace.
 
The David and Goliath dispute pitted independent producers of the official AOP standard Normandy Camembert against big industrial cheese producers like Lactalis.
 
The small producers had to stick to strict production rules to be able to put the prestigious AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protegé) label on their cheese that designates it is produced in a certain way from a specific region.
 
AOP Camembert producers crucially had to use unpasteurized milk, 50 percent of which had to come from Normandy cows grazing in Normandy fields.
 
But big producers didn't like those restrictions and used pasteurized milk from any kind of cow. As long as the factory was in Normandy they could simply put the label “Made in Normandy” on the round box with the aim of confusing customers.
 
And it appeared to work, with some 60,000 tonnes of “Made in Normandy” Camembert sold each year compared to just 6,000 tonnes of AOP label Normandy Camembert.
 
But these games will soon be a thing of the past.
 
 
By 2021 there will be just one Camembert from Normandy, an announcement by France's institute of origin and quality (INAO) revealed on Thursday.
 
It means an “upmarket move for everyone,” said the INAO, adding that the agreement will also give consumers “more transparency” and improve the quality of dairy herds in Normandy, their grazing conditions and cheese making at large.
 
The producers have agreed to the massive and controversial step of allowing a cheese to be called an AOP Normandy Camembert if it is made with pasteurized milk in future rather than lait cru. This will allow manufacturers to export it.
 
However as a kind of compromise they will also have to make sure that 30 percent of the milk used to make the cheese comes from real Normandy cows grazing in the region. 
 
“This agreement will put Normandy cows back in the Normandy meadows,” Patrice Chassard, chairman of a national cheese authority told AFP. 

 
However some say that the shift in regulation is playing right into the hands of industrial producersat the expense of quality.
 
French cheese association, Fromages de Terroirs, has claimed it marks the “death of AOP” — or Protected Designation of Origin — and will see quality “sink inexorably into mediocrity”.
 
 
“The AOP standard is being relaxed, I would even call it a renunciation of the values ​​of the standard,” president of the association Véronique Richez-Lerouge told L'Express.
 
“What Lactalis dreamed of in 2006 has been offered on a silver platter: the possibility of manufacturing an industrial Camembert with pasteurized milk within the rules of the AOP. The reality is that we gave the keys to the Lactalis AOP!”
 
In a bid to answer those critics, the new AOP standard will allow for the adding of a “special mention of value” to the label if the Camembert has been made with unpasteurized milk.
 
But Richez-Lerouge believes consumers going for the cheaper option will in reality mean only one type of Camembert will be produced in future.
 
“Only one AOP Camembert will be sold, the cheapest, the pasteurized one. This means the death of the intermediary operators like Gillot, the last large independent producer. It is a strategy to isolate and smother authentic Camembert,” she added.

 
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Photo: Thomas Liasne/Les Filles à Fromage
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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!

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