French AOP cheese the latest victim of France’s drought

Your cheeseboard board might have to go without a classic French cheese for some time, after production was halted due to the impacts of drought. 

French AOP cheese the latest victim of France's drought
In Mur-de-Barrez, southern France, on August 8, 2022, cows stand in a pasture hit by drought. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

Production of Salars – a type of cows’ milk cheese from the central French département of Cantal – has been halted for an indefinite period, as France suffers its worst drought on record.

Across the country rivers have run dry and water restrictions have been imposed – and now the cheese-makers are affected too.

The Salars cheese is an AOP (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), meaning the rules for its production are carefully defined – to be authentic, the cows’ diet must be at least 75 percent grass from pastures within the Auvergne region.

But as the drought continues, the normally fertile volcanic earth in Auvergne has gone hard and dry, and the grass has died – for the 78 AOP cheese producers in the region, their cows have not been able to graze for weeks.

READ MORE: Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

“There is nothing left to eat at my place,” said Laurent Roux, a farmer at Gaec de la Calsade in Cantal, to Francetvinfo.

“In some places, the ground looks like ashes. It’s dust,” he added. Roux’ cows have not been able to graze since June 25th. 

While this is the first time a full production stop for Salers has occurred, it is not the first time the AOP has had to contend with challenging climate conditions.

Some farmers had to temporarily suspend production in 2017, and in 2019, the AOP requested a waiver to decrease cows’ share of grass in their diets to 50 percent rather than the usual 75 percent.

However, farmer and head of the AOP, Laurent Lours, said this option was not on the table this year. “It is not worth it because we do not even have 50 percent of the grass,” he told the local station of France 3

He expects production to drop by at least 15 percent this year, as the cheese is only produced on farms between April 15th and November 15th. 

READ MORE: More than 100 French villages without tap water in ‘unprecedented’ drought

For individual farmers, many will turn to Cantal cheese (rather than Salers), which has less restrictive regulations for its production. Doing so also means that they will earn less – a loss of €200 per 1,000 litres of milk.

As for consumers, they can expect a shortage in stores and increase in prices for Salers cheese.

The drought is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, with the possibility of impacting other cheeses and AOP products.

In Switzerland, producers of Gruyère cheese are also worried about a lower quantity of milk production and are considering bringing their cows down to the plains earlier than usual this season.

From the mussels in the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel (as a result of a lack of fresh water in the rivers) to the Espelette peppers being lost to high temperatures, drought will likely impact a range of France’s unique ingredients.

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Does Asterix have the magic potion to save French cinema?

"Asterix" returns to the big screen on Wednesday as France tries to match Hollywood by weaponising nostalgia in the battle for box office success.

Does Asterix have the magic potion to save French cinema?

Critics may bemoan the crushing lack of originality in Hollywood in recent years, as risk-averse studios fall back on their catalogue of familiar superhero and sci-fi franchises.

But there is no doubting that it works: the top 10 of almost every country’s box office last year comprised nothing but Hollywood sequels, reboots and video game adaptations.

That is particularly frustrating for France, where ministers wonder whether they are getting a return on vast state subsidies lavished on the film industry.

Roselyne Bachelot, culture minister from 2020 to 2022, was scathing about her country’s filmmakers in a recent book.

“Direct subsidies, advances on receipts, tax exemptions… have created a protected industry which not only doesn’t care much about audiences’ tastes but even expresses contempt for ‘mainstream’ and profitable films,” she wrote.

Paris-based Pathe wants to be an exception, not least because it also runs a large chain of cinemas.

Borrowing from the Hollywood playbook, it has thrown large budgets at “Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom”, and “The Three Musketeers” which follows in its wake.

A reworking of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and a Charles de Gaulle biopic are also in the pipeline.

Pathe president Ardavan Safaee told AFP last year that the French system of producing hundreds of small, arty films “isn’t viable in the long-term” and that France needs “more spectacular” fare to compete with Hollywood blockbusters and streaming platforms.

‘The joy, the celebration’

The strategy will likely work at home: the four previous live-action Asterix movies (between 1999 and 2012) sold some 35 million tickets in France and almost the same again around Europe.

The latest takes no chances, with popular stars (including Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar) alongside cameos from rappers, YouTubers and even footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic designed to tempt younger viewers back to cinemas.

“Big films like this represent the joy, the celebration of making cinema in a very free and very broad way,” said Gilles Lellouche, who inherits the large britches of Obelix from previous star Gerard Depardieu.

Outside Europe, the prospects are less clear.

The makers had hoped for success in China, where the film is set. Director Guillaume Canet (who also stars as Asterix) travelled with President Emmanuel Macron to Beijing in 2019 to win the right to film on the Great Wall. But the pandemic ultimately scuppered the plan, and the film has yet to find a Chinese distributor.

Britain and the United States are also tricky markets since audiences are unaccustomed to dubbed or subtitled family fare.

It has been more than a decade since “The Artist” and “The Intouchables” broke records abroad. But despite occasional blockbusters like “Lucy” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” from Luc Besson, overseas ticket sales have been on a downward trend.

That could change. It’s no surprise that “Asterix” is being released on Netflix in the US — the streamer has done much to overcome traditional American aversion to subtitles with hit foreign shows, including France’s “Lupin” and “Call My Agent”.

“The time is right for updates of ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘Asterix’ to find success in America where fans are hungry for movies and shows with diverse and exciting points of view,” said Paul Dergarabedian, of US media analysts Comscore.