In Madagascar, The Democratization Of French Cheese

In one of the world's poorest countries, cheese is still a niche market. And yet, little by little, even the working class are starting to getting a taste.

Cheese is first and foremost a luxury product in Madagascar
Cheese is first and foremost a luxury product in Madagascar
Laure Verneau

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?

"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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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