Camembert Wars: if this is progress, I’ll take mine pasteurized

The AFP is reporting today that “real” camembert makers can rejoice. In addition to reducing the geographic boundaries of the camembert region, now the only camembert makers that will be recognized with the prestigious AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) label will:

–    use only raw milk;
–    have at least half of the cows providing the milk from Normandy origin; and,
–    ensure that their cows graze on Normandy pastures for at least 6 months of the year and fed hay the remainder of the time.

The grazing restrictions are new to the AOC conditions. I find them particularly surprising as research has shown that grass-fed or not, all cows can carry E. coli O157:H7.

The “real camembert” supporters apparently found the decision to be “undeniable progress.” Lactalis and Isigny-Sainte-Mère, two large companies that previously produced more than 80% of AOC Camembert, decided last year to begin heat-treating their milk as a safety measure.

Francophiles, can read today’s original story for themselves. The French clearly articulate that the raw milk camembert has a velvety taste compared to the pasteurized version, but that the traditional methods are more onerous because they require various testing measures to avoid pathogens such as listeria. According to my favorite food safety advisor, you cannot test your way to safe food. The new and improved camembert will have enhanced risks.

Making Love or Making Camembert

In an interview for CNN yesterday, the mayor of Saint-Loup de Fribois, France, Philippe Meslon said, "A camembert not made out of raw milk is like making love without sex.” This story, “France milks cheese for all its worth,” tracks the camembert business in Normandy and the struggle to earn the coveted Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée.

While I totally appreciate the tradition involved in making lait cru camembert (and personally love the taste), I still applaud the largest cheesemakers such as Lactalis and Isigny Sainte-Mère for choosing to heat-treat their milk. That safety measure meant that they consequently lost their AOC (“real camembert”) label, but it also meant significantly reducing the risks for their many consumers.

The mayor of Saint-Loup also says a Frenchman is “someone who cultivates with modern evolution his past. It’s someone who protects moral values, cultural values and artistic values, and when I say cultural values I would include camembert." That’s a nicely ambivalent statement supporting a staple of his region’s economy.

Normand cheesemaker, François Durand has 40 cows and the AOC label. He proudly claims that making cheese is about not cutting corners. "You have to have the passion. Yes it’s difficult because it means a lot of work. We make it all by hand.”

With recent changes in the large “industrial” cheeses, however, some camembert makers have been driven out of business. Michel Delorme says the new and stricter rules combined with his age made him stop producing handmade camembert. Although Durand misses his cheese, he’s kept some souvenirs such as his milk cans to remember his cheesemaking days.

Passion is important and nostalgia is nice, but the hundreds of years of tradition that go into camembert making in France need to include food safety practices to protect both French culture and consumers.