The king of French cheeses, the pungent and oozing camembert, is under threat from its own producers, who are moving towards using filtered milk to avoid health risks and appeal to global palates.
True camembert, the most smelly and premium variety, is made from raw milk from Normandy cows, unpasteurised, unsterilised and largely untouched by modern technology.
But in a move considered near-heretical by some cheese-lovers, at least one producer wants to treat the milk that is used.
A co-operative in the Normandy town of Isigny-sur-Mer was first to announce it intended to switch to micro-filtered milk but opponents fear the move could threaten the distinctive bacterial and farmyard flavour of a good, gooey camembert.
The co-operative, called Isigny-Sainte-Mere, is one of only 10 camembert producers whose cheese can bear the coveted Appellation d’Origine Controlee label, granted to cheeses, wines and other products made according to stringent production rules.
For camembert, an AOC label requires that producers use only untreated milk. Pasteurized camembert marketed abroad is not considered the real thing.
Producers say they want to minimise the possible health risks inherent in the use of raw milk, including the threat of E. coli bacteria.
“I don’t want to contaminate consumers. We are responsible” for their health, said the co-operative’s assistant general manager, Claude Granjon.
In December 2005, the Reaux company, another AOC camembert producer, had to close its factory for more than two months after six children became ill after eating its camembert.
Such cases are rare but of increasing concern to cheese makers. Many French consumers still frequent cheese shops but many turn to supermarket shelves that include pasteurised and otherwise processed cheeses.
The head of Reaux, Marc Brunet, remains a staunch opponent of micro-filtered milk. “The French consumer is very attached to untreated milk,” he said.
The co-operative in Isigny-sur-Mer does not want to break the rules, so it has asked the National Institute for Origin and Quality to change those that govern the AOC for camembert.
The Normandy Syndicate of Camembert Producers has voiced support for the move.
“Since most of the producers ask for it (the change in the decree), they must undoubtedly have a good reason,” said Francois Michel, the syndicate’s secretary general.
The INAO committee is to meet next week to examine the case, but a final ruling is not expected for six months to a year.
Elodie Pasty, spokeswoman for the INAO, thinks the committee could go either way.
“There is a notion of tradition in the AOC,” she said, though she added that the institution is “not uninterested in progress”.
“The AOC is not a food museum,” she said.
If the ruling is negative, some producers have said they would drop their AOC label, including France’s number one dairy company Lactalis and the Isigny-Sainte-Mere co-operative, which was awarded the Supreme World Champion Cheese prize in 2004 for its camembert.
Some fear this could lead to broader changes in the dairy industry in a country deeply attached to its cheese. Long-time leader General Charles de Gaulle once asked: “How can you govern a nation where there are 258 kinds of cheese?”
Today’s producers say there at least 350 kinds, and France makes 1.7 million tons of it a year. Of those, just 12,500 tons are AOC-labeled camembert, meaning they are made following the 18th-century recipe established by Marie-Christine Harel – using advice from a priest from Brie.