The N.Y. Times
is reporting this morning that, citing health concerns, the two companies, Lactalis and the Isigny Sainte-Mère cooperative, which together made 90 percent of the traditional raw milk Camembert in Normandy, began earlier this year to treat the milk used for most of those cheeses.
In doing so, they were forced to sacrifice their Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or, A.O.C., status, the first time in French history that Camembert producers voluntarily did so. But they also have asked the French governmental food board to grant that status to their new Camemberts, arguing that the processing they use — either filtering or gently heating the milk — does not sacrifice the traditional taste and character of the cheese.
Mr. Durand and his supporters beg to differ, claiming that the move is a ploy by the dairy giants to make more cheese and profits while destroying a crucial part of French heritage. If the companies’ petition is granted, they argue, raw milk cheese would be threatened.
Is Camembert in jeopardy? This week my French "maman" went to the market and verified that Lepetit, one of the brands affected by the Isigny/Lactilis decision to quit using raw milk in their Camembert, is indeed, no longer putting lait cru cheese on the shelves. What's interesting, though, is that they still have the "moulé à la louche" or ladle-formed indication on the box. This is one of the traditional Camembert making methods that was said to be in jeopardy (see "Cheese Culture"
In fact, if Mr. Durand, as described in today's N.Y. Times article, is the only one left in Normandy who makes traditional Camembert … does that mean the French don’t really care as much about the traditional cheesemaking process as having inexpensive and easily accessible cheese?
Evidence suggests “cheese culture” (or if H. prefers, the cultural approach to cheese) is changing in France. Our neighbor Jean-Claude in Maubuisson, France, apologized profusely to us as he set out his cheese plate after the main course, saying that he should have provided a better combination of soft and hard cheeses, cow and sheep’s milk, etc. When we reciprocated dinner and put out our cheese platter, he commented on how well chosen our cheese variety was – even though I managed to forget a hard cheese for the selection. These details used to be an essential part of dining etiquette in France, but today they are only traditional suggestions. Jean-Claude said his mother always told him that it was good to take only three cheeses, not more. He’s nearly 60 now, and remembers the lessons he learned, but he does not honor them like the religion they once were.
If companies want to mass produce their cheese, and market it in countries like the U.S. with its strict cheese rules (and where we don’t really have a cultural approach to cheese unless we live in Wisconsin or Vermont), then these companies do need to think about the safety of consumers. Whether safety is a byproduct of mass marketing or if it is influenced by a culture that is less tolerant of losing small children to lait cru Camembert doesn’t really seem to be the issue. The fact is, the change has been made. The impact will be felt, and other large cheese companies will have to decide if they will follow suit.
Mr. Durand will likely continue providing to his niche markets, and if he wants to practice good marketing, he may come grow his client base due to these changes.