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Tradition vs. Hygiene? A French Case For Preserving Old Cheese

Slow Food biennial "Cheese" event in Bra, Italy
Slow Food biennial "Cheese" event in Bra, Italy
Camille Labro

PARIS — For the last few years, cheese has been at the center of a debate that is as gastronomic as it is economic and sociocultural. Facing increasingly strict regulations, many producers are concerned about the future of cheese made with ancestral methods, and the anxiety is particularly high in France and Italy, which each boast 400 varieties.

At issue specifically is the so-called European “hygiene package,” a set of six sanitary regulations involving food and animals that was adopted in 2006. “Nowadays, legislation isn’t always fitting with the product’s needs,” says Laurent Mons, owner of the eponymous French cheese producer. “Hygiene rules end up standardizing cheeses, their taste and production.”

The fear is that the requirements could lead to the end of farm cheese, often made with old-fashioned processes and with unpasteurized milk. But Paolo Caricato, unit head of the European Commission’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, dismisses this notion. “The ‘hygiene package’, which is mostly intended for industrialists, provides exemptions and great flexibility for small producers, concerning equipment, structures or the use of resources such as straw or wood. It’s up to the member countries to enforce the legislation as well as the exemptions.”

He adds that the agency has “no interest in destroying or restricting traditions that are also part of our communities’ cultural identity.” If some producers need to be guided so that their operations meet the standards, then perhaps consumers too, conditioned by germophobia, should also be reeducated.

That’s why initiatives such as Slow Food International’s biennial "Cheese" event in September are so important. Held in Bra, Italy — the same town where the Slow Food organization for the defense of “good, clean and fair food” was born — the event gathers workshops, conventions, tastings, street food, and producers selling cheeses of French, Swiss, Italian, African and Brazilian origin.

For September’s event, an entire street was dedicated to the 170 dairy “sentinels,” i.e. “endangered” products that Slow Food has endorsed and hopes will endure. Among the French sentinels are Béarnaise mountain ewe and Salers cows tome cheese.

“The Cheese biennial is an important educational opportunity,” says Piero Sardo, director of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. “Two hundred thousand people come here to understand the differences in quality, history and identity between traditional and industrial cheese.”

Good things happening for French cheese

Now, in fact, is a time of optimism for French cheese. At the Opus Cseus training center, founded by the Mons brothers, more and more American and Australian producers come to be immersed in French traditions and to unlearn their prejudices, which center director Susan Sturman characterizes as a “good sign.”

The folks at Philippe Olivier’s, a famous cheesemaker located in the northern French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, say we are entering an “era of renewal” and a return to handicraft and to micro-productions.

Emily Pon, who became a cheese enthusiast after a career in luxury products, says she is constantly amazed, when she travels to different regions, by the work of local farmers. She looks for cheeses and foods that taste of “moss, hay, mushroom and rain,” that are “simultaneously ugly and pretty” or “that tell the story of a land.” She tracks down refined pattypan squashes in the French southeastern Var region, rare Termignon blue cheeses in the Alpine Savoie or even small ewe tome in the southern town of Eygalières, made by “an old man just by himself.”

There are so many unique products, both intense and subtle, that can be savored in Emily Pon's shop in Marseille — and in the restaurants that she supplies. In her shop, the French and foreign customers don’t care a bit about the sanitary regulations.

“What they want is real taste and strong sensations!”

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