04 novembre 2005

The death of a cheesy tradition

''Célina Gagneux has a heart-rending choice to make this winter. Will she make another cheese? Mme Gagneux, 73, is the last maker of the Vacherin d'Abondance, a rich, creamy cheese, so liquid you eat it with a spoon. Her cheeses are much prized by fromagophiles, in the way rare birds and rare flowers and rare wines are prized.
There are various forms of Vacherin, including the celebrated Mont d'Or, from the Franche-Comté. Cheese connoisseurs say that the Vacherin d'Abondance - which has existed for more than 200 years - is the finest of all.
For each of the past two or three winters, in her small farm in the Abondance valley, in the French Alps, high above lake Geneva, Mme Gagneux has threatened to retire. Each year, she has relented and agreed to make a small amount of her precious cheese.
In this part of the Alps, Vacherin was traditionally made only in the winter, when the cows - the beautiful, local Abondance breed, with rich, brown-red bodies and white faces - were kept conveniently in their sheds on the farm. In the summer, the animals are in the pastures high on the mountains.
This year, Mme Gagneux insists, the time may have finally come to put Vacherin d'Abondance to rest. "I don't know if I will ever make any more," she said. "I made a little last winter but I don't know if I will bother again this year. I am getting old now and milking cows in the winter, morning and evening, getting up early, bringing in the wood, starting the fire, making the cheese, I don't know if I will have the energy this year. I don't know if we will keep the cows any longer. It's a pity but there it is."
In the next valley, in the village of Thollon, another local cheese - a harder, semi-skimmed milk cheese, also much admired by experts - is down to its last manufacturer. Fortunately, the cheese-maker, Jean-Francois Vesin is only 28. He is still helped by his father Georges who handed over a couple of years ago. The Thollon - a tangy, delicate, delicious cheese, made in tiny quanties and available only locally - should survive for years.
"There used to be dozens of makers of Thollon, partly for the family to eat themselves, partly for sale," Jean-Francois said. "Now younger people don't want that kind of life any more. They can earn more elsewhere. You have to be passionate about cheese to carry on. From when I was very young, I have been been passionate about cheese."
Cheese is a symbol of Frenchness, to the French and to foreigners. The sheer number and variety of the kinds of French cheese - far more than any other country - sums up French cussedness and infinite, culinary imagination. Cheese is also emblematic of the sometimes confused debate about the external threats to French identity which helped to shape the "non" vote in the EU referendum in May. French cheese is said to be under threat, from Brussels and from a supposed "Anglo-Saxon" distaste for "stinky French cheeses". In truth, most of the threats come from within France.
Charles de Gaulle said it was impossible to govern a country with "265 different kinds of cheese". He understated the problem. Depending on how you count them, there may be more than 1,000 types of cheese in France.
Daniel Burjon, a cheese trader in Haute Savoie and defender of the cause of local French cheeses, said: "I tried with a friend to list them all but we lost count somewhere after 700."
However many French cheeses there may once have been, there are fewer today. It is estimated that 50 varieties of French cheese have become extinct since the mid-1970s.
The Galette des Monts d'Or, a creamy cow's cheese, was produced in hills near Lyons for 400 years. Last summer, the final producer died. The cheese died with him. No one wanted to take over, partly because of the onerous rules imposed on cheese production by Brussels, and, despite its apparent championing of the cause of local traditions and delicacies, by Paris.
Hundreds of types of French cheese remain but very little of the overall cheese output of France now consists of "real" cheese in the French manner. Most French cheeses are, or should be, made with laît cru or raw milk. In other words, the milk is used as it comes out of the cow or goat or sheep, not pasteurised or filtered or heat-treated.
Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president of an association which promotes traditional cheeses, says 95 per cent of the cheese manufactured in France now fails this test. "The market is dominated by industrial, pasteurised cheeses, which use the old names but are, in truth, fake cheeses, with a fraction of the taste and character," she said. "Their share of sales is growing all the time. French cheeses which are made traditionally and authentically, that is with raw, unpasteurised milk, are now down to only 5 or 6 per cent of the market. A national calamity threatens, which many French people don't even knowing is happening."
It is the raw milk tradition of French cheese, which helps to explain its variety. In the days before refrigeration and railways, soft, raw-milk cheeses, unlike hard cheeses, could not be taken a long way to market. Local traditions dominated.
"We are a very quarrelsone, secretive people," said the cheese trader, M. Burjon . "Every region, every valley, every village, sometimes every farm had a different recipe which was guarded jealously and regarded as the only right way to make cheese."
Cheese is also sometimes used as a way (yet another way) of attacking the French. Remember the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"? It was first used jokingly by The Simpsons but it was rapidly adopted by American - and British - enthusiasts for the Iraq war as a way of suggesting the French were a bunch of craven, inward-looking hedonists, more interested in their bellies than their souls.
But the sheer variety of French cheese poses a problem for French-bashers. How is it that a nation supposedly centrally controlled with little respect for individual initiative, has devised 1,000 different ways of making milk into cheese? The United States, the self-appointed apostle of liberty and freedom of choice, has only one genuine, traditional cheese: the rubber kind you get in cheeseburgers (known as "American Cheese".) If you go into any American supermarket, you will see 50 kinds of peanut-butter, all tasting the same. Ditto for biscuits in Britain and increasingly - tragically - for cheese in France. What the modern world calls "choice" mostly comes down to marketing and labelling.
There was an outcry in France 10 years ago when the EU introduced food hygiene regulations which seemed to threaten the future of raw-milk cheeses. But the real threats to authentic French cheese are more complex and more intractable - and more domestic.
The French dairy manufacturing industry, dominated by two or three large companies, has encouraged the belief that pasteurised cheese is "safe" and raw-milk cheeses are "risky". Scientific studies suggest that, as long as raw-milk cheese is well-made, it is less likely to be a breeding ground for listeria and other food-related dangers.
Raw-milk cheeses contain good and bad bacteria which cancel each other out. Pasteurised cheeses are "dead". They have no bacteria but that makes them more vulnerable to attack once they reach your fridge.
The dairy giants, who depend on mass production, prefer people to believe pasteurised cheese is safer. They, not the small producers, have the lobbying strength to shape the rules in Brussels, and in Paris. Successive Fremch governments have paid lip-service to small farmers, local traditions and quality of food production. President Jacqus Chirac has been doing it again recently, to defend the CAP from the assaults of Tony Blair.
In truth, with the exception of Lionel Jospin's governmment (1997-2002), all French governments for the past 50 years have promoted large-scale farming and mass-production of food, especially cheese.
Jean-Francois Vesin, the last maker of Thollon, said: "The rules are made for and by the big companies. They often make no sense when applied to small producers like me. There have to be standards but cheese, real cheese, cannot be produced in a laboratory. Bacteria make cheese and have for hundreds of years. Raw milk cheese was safe then and it is now."
Mme Gagneux said: "When I was a girl, there were 30 people or more who made Vacherin in this valley. Now they've all died or stopped. They make the Abondance cheese, a firmer cheese, because that's what the big buyers want. How can you blame them? Abondance is also a very fine cheese. But our Vacherin was wonderful, with a style and taste of its own. Now, perhaps, there will never be another one made. It's a pity, but there it is."
Daniel Burjon, the local cheese affineur" (finisher) and and trader, says EU hygiene regulations and national regulations partly explain why small cheese-makers are being forced out of business. But the real problems, he says, are more complex.
"There is no longer the will among younger people to keep up the small-farm traditions. Farming is associated with struggle, with ignorance, with failure. And yet the old peasants, and the old peasant cheese-makers, knew many things. They could build their own home with their own bare hands. How many politicians can do that? Unfortunately, whatever President Chirac or the government may say, France holds the small farmer in contempt. Everything is done to encourage small farmers to abandon the land and, with them, goes part of our patrimony of cheese.
"Here in the Alps for instance, a young man or woman can cross the border into Switzerland and earn far more than they can earn if they stay on the farm. They can sell a few hectares of the family land for development, keep a couple of flats for themselves and live off the rents. Even if they do keep up the dairy herd, they find it easier and more profitable to sell the milk to the big dairy companies to be made into supermarket cheeses.
"Everything is done to encourage people to buy standard cheeses, cheese with a uniform, predictable taste. We are losing part of our character and soul."
M. Vesin, the last maker of Thollon, took me down into his cellar, where more than 200 cheeses, each the size of a man-hole cover, were maturing. Thollon is eaten when it is at least six months old but is strongest and best after a year. M. Vesin makes two of them each day and sells them, when ready, in the family grocery and cheese shop or in local markets.
"It is best to eat the ones made in the summer-time because the fresh grass eaten by the cows gives them a rich, true taste," he said. "The winter-made ones, when the cows are eating hay, are not quite so good."
It is just this kind of natural variation, as important to a true cheese-lover as the character given to wine by local conditions or terroirs, which is destroyed by the pasteurisation process. "Real", unpasteurised camembert, for instance, is always at its best in the summer.
As a soft cheese, camembert takes only a month or six weeks to reach the shops. If you eat a raw-milk camembert in late June or July you are eating the first flush of summer grass consumed by the cows in May or June. In a pasteurised camembert, you are eating a muddle of bland milk from different seasons.
"All is far from lost," said Mme Richez-Lerouge, head of the association which campaigns to preserve the terroirs of French cheese. "We hope gradually to re-introduce the French , and afterwards the British and others, to the treasures which have come down to use over the centuries."
Locally it is even whispered that Mme Gagneux may again relent and make a little Vacherin d'Abondance this winter.

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