At FrenchForFoodies.com, Rachel Bajada looks into the endangered world of France’s cheese heritage, and visits one of Paris’ top affineurs to learn more (and take some beautiful photographs of the cheeses in the caves):
When I first arrived in Paris over two years ago, if you had tried to convince me that French cheese was an endangered species on the culinary food chain, I would likely have choked in disbelief on my staple lunch order of Salade de chèvre chaud.
My first exposure to the concept of “Les fromages en voie de disparition” (endangered cheeses) was through a French documentary called “La guerre des fromage qui pue” (The war of stinky cheeses) — an eye-opening exposé on the French dairy industry revealing the how countless French cheeses annually become extinct due to increasing hygiene controls enforced on small-scale producers, globalisation by mega dairy cooperatives, and the general decline in demand by French consumers for premium, artisanal products. Curious to learn more, I arranged to meet with one of Paris’ most respected, accomplished and outspoken men in the cheese business: Philippe Alléosse. A master fromager and affineur, Alléosse’s task is to ripen cheeses in his vast network of Parisian caves. He is not only a master when it comes to cheese making, but also a passionate ambassador for the preservation of what could be a dying art – the cultivation of stinky, gooey and delectable fromage.
I meet with Alléosse at his cheese maturation caves, which are situated near Clichy in the buzzing and eclectic 17th arrondissement. Eager to get to the bottom of the situation, I ask him which exactly of the French cheeses face extinction. His response is terrifying and astonishingly simple: “All of them”… When many French people think they are buying a Brie, Roquefort or a Sainte-maure-de-touraine today, what they’re getting is mass-produced industrial cheese, it’s not AOC and a lot of the time it’s not even made from raw milk… take Camembert AOC, there are only a handful of producers left making AOC Camembert, not to mention all the lesser known cheeses made on a small scale whose producers can’t keep up with the strict hygiene regulations being imposed on them.”
Rachel also provides some sobering statistics, showing that, despite the explosion of interest in cheese in regions like North America, all’s not well in every corner of the artisanal cheese world:
• Of the 100-150 raw milk cheeses available, three disappear each year, meaning around 40 have become extinct in the last decade.
• While Americans, Australians and Britons are increasingly going for unpasteurized cheese, in France raw milk cheeses dropped to 179,750 tonnes in 2008 against 183,500 tonnes in 2006.
• Bleu de Termignon, Vacherin des Bauges, Vacherin d’Abondance, Persillés de Tignes des Aravis and de Semnoz, Reblochon du Mont-Cenis, Colombier des Aillons, Galette du Mont-d’Or are just some of the cheeses that have disappeared. During the last 30 years, more than 50 traditional cheeses disappeared, whereas industrial production continues to increase
• French people eat 23.9 kg of cheese per capita per year, which is the second highest consumption rate, just after the Greeks. But that good score hides a cruel reality: raw milk cheeses are only 7 per cent of that consumption
(Photos ©2012 Rachel Bajada)
Cazelle de St. Affrique, from the caves of legendary french affineur Hervé Mons, is an amazing little sheep’s milk puck from Aveyron, Midi-Pyrénées region. Similar in style to the classic goat’s milk Crottin de Chavignol, the first part of the name, “Cazelle”, derives from the small stone huts dotting the shepherd’s fields in the region, while the town of Saint Affrique gives it the second.
Barely holding it’s form when resting on the slate, once you cut the golden-white, pillowy rind open it collapses out into buttery, oozing goodness, pure decadence in a few blissful bites, with a flavor of hay and field herbs, nutty, earthy and tangy, melting on the tongue. This bite-sized cheese is likely to be gone in just a few.
Purchased at Bedford Cheese Shop’s new Manhattan store.
(image copyright 2011 Nona Brooklyn)
The recent piece in the New York Times on affinage has touched off a bit of a food fight in the cheese world. Nona Brooklyn spoke to some cheese world folks, in what is an interesting and informative post that helps to clarify what Affinage really is and who is really qualified to claim the mantle of Affineur for themselves. The most important distinction made is between “Cheese Care” and “Affinage”. As Brad Dubé says:
To really boil it down, there’s cheese care and there’s affinage. The difference is big. The distinction is there and it should be made clearer. The lines between affinage and cheese care are starting to be blurred, and that’s a problem…The new school has taken to calling cheese care ‘affinage,’ but it’s not affinage. Affinage is very different. Real affineurs buy young cheese – cheese that hasn’t yet been aged, and that isn’t ready for consumption – and they age it themselves, to give it a specific set of characteristics that they’re seeking to impart or highlight. Affineurs work directly with producers to select the right wheels of young cheese. They’re not getting cheese that’s already been aged and is ready for the market and then doing something to it.