ANTSIRABE — Sam Mimouni holds out his artisanal Fourme d'Ambert, a semi-hard, French blue cheese. "The more it stinks, the better it is," he jokes.

The gray rind, the visible mold, the melting texture: This is the perfect example of the Auvergne specialty, but without the official French designation of origin. There's a reason for that. Sam doesn't live in central France; he's in Madagascar, in the town of Antsirabe, 172 kilometers south of the capital, Antananarivo.

At Le Comptoir des Hautes Terres, his cheese store located on one of the city's main streets, the Frenchman has been making 25 different varieties of cheese for nearly 20 years.

"Here, we make the classic cheeses," he says, "And I also create some with typically Malagasy ingredients."

The rind is washed with local beer; the center is made of dried caviar, pink berries and wild pepper. Local flavors reinvent the dairy specialty.

It is not by chance that one of the largest former French colonies has such a savoir-faire, between imitation and emancipation. Antsirabe is located in the Vakinankaratra region, a dairy bastion in the center of the Grande Île (Big Island). Here, the cheese industry dates back to the colonial era, when Norwegian, Catholic and Protestant missions imported the first dairy cows, as well as their technical mastery, from pasteurization to maturation.

So who can dream of a local fondue when the first frost falls on the highlands?

Nowadays, while the dairies that produce the classic western cheese varieties are generally French, those in the countryside — which make up the majority — are run by Malagasy. The country produces 120 million liters of milk per year. This is an infinitesimal quantity compared to Brittany and its 5 billion liters per year. But it's enough for a cheese culture to exist and spread, as paradoxical as it may seem.

Madagascar is one of the five poorest nations in the world and 75% of its inhabitants live on less than $2 a day. Some 2,000 kilometers from Antsirabe, in the extreme south of the country, the population is suffering from a lack of water and is experiencing one of the worst famines in its history.

In this context, enjoying a well-made blue cheese or camembert is not a national food priority. Especially since a kilo of cheese from an artisanal dairy is sold for an average of 10 euros (roughly $12), according to figures from 2017. So who can dream of a local fondue when the first frost falls on the highlands?

The country produces 120 million liters of milk per year — Photo: Lactimad

"Here, cheese is first and foremost a luxury product, the consumption of which is gradually becoming more accessible," says Jérôme Bergon, who for six years has managed the Lactimad cheese factory, also based in Antsirabe.

Like Mimouni, Bergon has a mixed clientele, equal parts Vazahas (tourists or expatriates) and Malagasy from the capital with "good purchasing power." On the Big Island, there is no certification, except the certificate of consumability issued by the Ministry of Commerce, which gives way to wagering permits on the market.

"Brie is my favorite," says Domohina, an office worker who came to Lactimad to buy raclette and Vacherin for the weekend. "I give it to my children for a snack or breakfast, but not every day. It costs too much!"

Grated on a pizza or in pasta, food traditions are evolving with the supply.

"For a long time, it was difficult to sell cheeses other than semi-cooked cheeses with a uniform color and no roughness," says Mimouni. "But in recent years, the palate has become more complex and the clientele from Antananarivo is more inclined to try stronger specialties."

"Our customers are diverse, but I would say the vast majority are Malagasy," says Serge Randriamahefasoa, who runs the Maminiaina dairy on the edge of Antsirabe. "They regularly come to buy assortments for family celebrations, for example. These customers belong to the middle class, if that exists here at all."

This trained computer programmer turned to cheese 15 years ago when he took over the family business. Since then, he has been producing round cheeses coated in wax, like Saint Paulin or raclette, which are sold in all the country's supermarkets at 16,000 ariary (about $4.20) per 500 grams.

Other, even more affordable options do exist. In Antsirabe's bistros, you can find small cheeses made on the same day, unripened for 2,000 ariary (about $0.50). These are enjoyed as "tsaky-tsaky" ("snack" in Malagasy) with a glass of rum at the end of the day. Cheese may not yet be a popular product in Madagascar, but it is at last beginning to be more accessible to people with different sized incomes.

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