French cheese traditionalists win latest round of 12-year camembert battle

A long-running battle over the future of France's most famous cheese came to a head on Friday with a victory for traditionalists.

French cheese traditionalists win latest round of 12-year camembert battle
Photo: AFP

The world of camembert cheese has been rocked for more than 12 years by a hard-fought battle over the type of milk that is permitted in the product.

Traditionalists say it must only be produced with unpasturised milk, produced by cows that graze on Normandy grass.

Industrial producers say this is impractical as it dos not allow them to export the cheese to the United States – which bans unpasturised milk – and changes would boost local agriculture.

The culture war had already been raging for 10 years when in February 2018 when a compromise was announced – industrial producers would use more milk from grass fed cows but at the same time would be permitted to use pasturised milk in their product and keep the prestigious 'AOP Normandy Camembert' label.

But anyone who hoped the compromise had dampened down the cheese wars was in for a disappointment, after producers voted on Friday against allowing pasturised milk anywhere near their famous product.

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Grass-fed Normandy cows made the best milk for camembert. Photo: AFP

The vote among dairy executives was a narrow victory – 53 percent – for the traditionalists. 

Producers rejected “an enlarged Normandy AOP,” Patrick Mercier, the appellation's president and a key backer of the project, said in a statement.

Veronique Richez-Lerouge, a staunch opponent of the plan who heads the “Fromages de Terroirs” association, hailed “very good news for all European AOPs.”

“The principle of quality won out over the increased demands of dairy giants, it's a victory for taste,” she said.

Supporters said the compromise would have reversed decades of declining dairy farming in western France, where fewer than a dozen producers still make the cheese the traditional way.

Industrial producers would have had to sharply increase the amount of milk from Normande cows – instead of more productive Holsteins that now predominate – and ensure they mainly ate grass instead of standardised feed.

Advocates also pointed out that pasteurisation, the gentle heating of milk to remove bacteria, is already accepted in roughly 25 percent of French AOP cheeses.

But critics cried foul, saying consumers would be confronted with dual versions of the camembert appellation d'origine protegee (AOP), the French badge of quality for locally produced delicacies.

France's national dairy AOP board, the CNAOL, came out against the plan last spring, calling it an “unacceptable homogenisation” of a cheese whose flavour and texture change with the seasons.

The board's president Michel Lacoste said using “curd machines” and other techniques would make the cheese taste the same year round, no matter what type of milk was used.

“The whole point of AOP cheese is that is comes from milk that's alive, from a particular place, and the producer has to adapt to make it,” he said.

Member comments

  1. If you have ever tasted Camembert cheese produced in America, you would never eat it again. Bland and gummy it is truly awful. But french camembert is superb. I always have a very stinky piece in my ice box when visiting :)) I applaud this decision to keep the quality. And the AOP designation, which I do look for. It assures me I am getting the best avaliable, and the tastiest camembert.

  2. Again, Thank God!! If they want to export it then they should come uo with a new name for it, I will suggest: GUMMY. But then americans are not cheese lovers at all. So why export it as Camembert? Call it Gummy Cheese. I could not even get my dog to eat american camembert. And he will eat Velvetta, a processed cheese food. Which if you ever try it would make you spit it out. It is like eating orange rubber. Even the Brie here in america is just not up to par. Tasteless.

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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!