PARIS — French cheese connoisseurs want everyone who loves the country’s culinary heritage to hear their anguished, almost unimaginable cry: Boycott French Camembert.
Because soon enough, they warn, that creamy, pungent icon of France will give way to a tasteless paste masquerading as the real thing. Beginning in 2021, Camembert made from pasteurized milk, in factories, will be labeled in a way that has only been allowed for artisanal cheese made in the time-honored, more expensive way — by hand, using raw milk.
More than 40 leading French chefs, winemakers, and cheese ripeners signed an open letter, published on Tuesday in the daily Libération, denouncing this apostasy and calling on President Emmanuel Macron to put a stop to it. Without separate designations to signal to consumers, they predicted, raw milk Camembert will become increasingly rare — a niche, luxury product available only to a select few.
“We demand raw milk Camembert for all!” the letter said, ending with the declaration, “Liberté, égalité, Camembert!”
It denounced the new rules as “shame, scandal, imposture,” even “treason,” while dismissing pasteurized milk Camembert as “lifeless matter,” “pasteurized plaster” and “an ocean of mediocrity.” Pasteurization kills dangerous germs, but raw milk Camembert lovers insist that it also kills flavor, robbing the cheese of richness and “terroir,” the character imparted by a specific place.
Some of the signatories, like the letter’s author, Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president of a group devoted to traditional cheeses, and François Bourgon, a noted cheesemonger, even called for a boycott of Camembert if the change takes effect.
“Camembert is the emblem of French cheeses,” Mr. Bourgon said. “If it dies, others will follow.”
In fact, the old way has been waning for a long time, and it is not clear how many French consumers understand the difference, or care deeply about it. Most of the 65,000 tons of Camembert sold each year in France is mass produced from pasteurized milk, and only 8.5 percent earns the coveted designation “Camembert de Normandie,” meaning that it is made in that region, to exacting standards, from raw milk.
From the baguette to Champagne, France has long seen its gastronomy as a sacred treasure, and none of the 1,200 varieties of cheese produced in the country are as much a national symbol as Camembert. Dating back almost to the French Revolution, it became popular during World War I, when its producers gave free Camembert to soldiers and adorned its iconic round, wooden boxes with patriotic messages.
“Camembert is a monument of the French culture and should remain so,” said Patrick Mercier, one of the few remaining producers of raw milk Camembert.
For decades, big and small producers in the northern region of Normandy have fought over how their cheese could be labeled. The small makers — now fewer than a dozen — have to stick to strict rules to keep a “protected designation of origin” status, or P.D.O., bestowed by the European Union. They must use unfiltered, raw milk, more than half of it from the Normande breed of cattle, and make the cheese nearby, ladling the milk by hand into molds.
The runny, rich cheese that results from this defiantly pre-modern process, whose strong smell lingers on the fingers for hours, is labeled with the P.D.O. “Camembert de Normandie.”
Meanwhile, industrial makers have been allowed to label their product as “Fabriqué en Normandie,” or “Made in Normandy,” as long as the cheese factory was there. They can use pasteurized milk from any breed of cow.
Raw milk can contain dangerous bacteria like listeria, salmonella, E. coli, and even the tuberculosis bacterium. Pasteurization — named, it should be noted, for a Frenchman — means heating briefly to kill off harmful germs.
Modern precautions make the risks from raw milk far lower, but they are not foolproof; just last week, there was a recall of contaminated raw milk reblochon cheese made at a factory in the Alps. But devotees of traditional cheeses say that the care that goes into making them by hand, in relatively small batches, near the source of the milk, makes contamination much less likely.
Hard cheeses made from raw milk are safe because they age longer, becoming steadily more acidic, which kills bacteria. But soft cheeses are eaten “young,” and Camembert can be aged for as little as three weeks.
The United States has long forbidden the sale of raw milk cheese that is less than 60 days old. As a result, many an American cheese aficionado has, alas, never tasted what purists would call true Camembert.
Normandy’s small producers long complained that the slim difference in wording between “Camembert of Normandy” and Camembert “Made in Normandy” was misleading.
“The flora we find in the grass goes through the cow’s body, its udder, right down to the milk, the cheese, and finally, our own taste buds,” Mr. Mercier said. “Unlike the unpasteurized one, raw milk Camembert is the perfect way to savor Normandy’s terroir.”
This year, the two sides agreed that by 2021, the big producers will be able to call their cheese “Camembert of Normandy,” and those who adhere to the old-fashioned methods can label theirs “True Camembert from Normandy.”
To some connoisseurs, it is less a truce than a surrender, further blurring the difference, but Mr. Mercier, who represented small producers in the negotiations over the new designation, said not to worry.
“The real cheese lovers will still be able to buy real Camembert,” he said. “And at least the war is over, for now.”
By: Elian Peltier
Source: The New York Times