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Canadians cause a stink by beating France to take top Camembert prize

Lovers of “real” Camembert have suffered a further set back after a Canadian version of the creamy cheese was voted the best in the entire world.

Canadians cause a stink by beating France to take top Camembert prize
A cheesemaker in the Normandy village of Camembert. Photo: AFP

“Normandy Camembert dethroned by a Quebec cheese!” was the horrified headline of the Paris-Normandie newspaper from the northern French region where the delicacy has its spiritual home.

There were similar reactions across French media as the news reached France over the weekend that L’Extra, produced in Saint-Hyacinthe, near Montreal, had taken first prize in the Camembert category at the World Championship Cheese Contest.

The top French Camembert presented was Isigny Sainte-Mère which limped in at a lowly 12th place in the competition that it won back in 2010.

There was some comfort for France however as the country won the overall top prize at the event, which was held in Wisconsin and is seen as one of the world's top cheese events.

Esquirrou, which is crafted in the French Pyrenees mountains, must be aged no less than 90 days, and which features nutty notes and a toasted wheat aroma, was  judged the best cheese in the world.

But that did not prevent a minor bout of gloating from the Canadians, who were delighted at the victory over the French of their Camembert from Quebec.

“France insulted by a cheese from here,” said a headline in the Journal de Montréal.

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The humiliation comes just weeks lovers of “true” Camembert were devastated when Normandy’s artisan dairies, which make the traditional version of the creamy cheese with raw milk, lost a decade-long battle with their mass-market rivals who make industrial, pasteurised Camembert.

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, according to an announcement by France's institute of origin and quality (INAO) last month.

 

 

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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.

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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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