Camembert Clash: The French Cheese Wars

By Ullrich Fichtner

It was a typical globalization-era war that pitted tradition against profits. A large cheese factory wanted to change the Camembert recipe and began a dirty fight against small producers. This time, though, tradition emerged victorious.

When Luc Morelon was still convinced that this was a winnable war, he was willing to give interviews in his office on the 30th floor of the Montparnasse Tower, with its view of the Eiffel Tower and of a deceptively peaceful-looking sea of shimmering Parisian rooftops in the morning mist. Wearing a tie with a pattern of little colorful goats on it, Morelon, a heavy-set, white-haired man, sat at his desk facing a laptop filled with data and charts of his company, Lactalis. With 125 plants worldwide, 32,000 employees and €9.6 billion ($12.2 billion) in annual sales, Lactalis is Europe's largest cheese producer, a global giant and a company that is easy to hate.

He had had a grueling year as the spokesman for Lactalis. Now it was winter again and Morelon, the company's powerful director in charge of communication and disinformation, had gotten used to playing the role of villain. He curtly rejected the first few requests for an interview, writing, without the customary niceties and French flourishes, that he was no longer available for further attacks by the "self-proclaimed custodians of tradition," and that he was tired of listening to the chants of "the small against the big" and the constant talk of a "Camembert war."

But it is a war. Or at least it was one until recently, when it ended with a total capitulation, a humiliating defeat for Morelon and Lactalis, following a series of dirty skirmishes and loud, behind-the-scenes battles that were waged for almost two years. The bitter dispute began in March 2007, when Lactalis and the Isigny Sainte-Mère dairy co-operative announced, in a coordinated move, their intention to halt the large-scale production of raw milk Camembert. It may not sound like much, but this was the first shot in the Norman cheese war, a thundering, unexpected explosion.

Suddenly the world's most famous cheese was in jeopardy. It was a severe blow to French national pride. This was about France's culinary splendor, which like the beret, the bottle of wine and the baguette, is as much a part of the French self-image as it is a time-honored cliché. Until then, Lactalis and Isigny had together produced more than 80 percent of the true and unique "Camembert de Normandie" The companies were responsible for 10,000 of the 13,000 tons of Camembert produced in France each year, or 42 million of 52 million boxes of cheese. And now they were saying, after more than 100 years of tradition, that it was all over, that Camembert made with raw milk presented an imminent danger and was a health hazard. It was a declaration of war.

More than Just Camembert

At first, French newspapers and magazines devoted as much attention to the story as they would have to a terrorist attack in downtown Paris. In fact, it was characterized as a kind of assassination, an assault on culinary tradition and the attempted murder of small Camembert producers. At first, it was not about cheese but tradition, about so much more than Camembert.

Morelon, whose job was to sell the company's decision to the public, became the symbolic figure of an anonymous industry that was laying its hands on France's holiest of possessions, all in the interest of profit. Instead of simply getting out of the market for raw milk Camembert and tacitly turning it over to other producers, from the very beginning Lactalis and Isigny behaved as if they wanted to destroy the entire market.

First of all they applied to the relevant authorities to have the celebrated Camembert Charter -- whereby the cheese is legally certified with the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), a term of origin valid under European Union law -- rewritten for their benefit. In addition to raw milk, they wanted thermized, micro-filtered, industrially processed, cheaper milk to also qualify for the original Normandy Camembert certificate. Despite being Frenchmen in France, they seemed to be behaving like clueless foreigners from the European Union -- those people who were ignorant of the French art of pleasure and who had always wanted to see everything pasteurized, heated at high temperatures and destroyed.

Or did they? "It's the Franco-French lunacy," said Morelon on the one occasion he deigned to give an interview to SPIEGEL. He is a man who is difficult to meet and who never agrees to be photographed, and during the interview it was obvious that he was seething inside. "We want to kill tradition? We?" he demanded. "We, monsieur, are the biggest producer of traditional cheese in France," he said, "of Roquefort, of Reblochon, of Bleu d'Auvergne -- all of this is truly bizarre." He had to control himself, he said, in light of this nonsense, this flight of fancy of certain Paris cliques who were exploiting his company "for their fantasies, for their fear-mongering speeches about the specters of globalization."

At first, when the decision to get out of the raw milk Camembert business had just been made, Morelon's arguments were more balanced. He talked about high production costs, increases in the price of milk and a market that would collapse if the retail price rose above €2 ($2.55) per wheel of Camembert. "Hygienic risk" played a role, but it was not the decisive factor, not yet at least. But before long, as the people stubbornly defended their Camembert and their outrage over Lactalis and Isigny grew, the two companies settled on a more a straightforward message that was easier to sell: Camembert made with raw milk is dangerous. Contamination with E. coli, listeria and salmonella, they argued, was not just possible but probable.

Descended Out of Nowhere

The people at Lactalis and Isigny kept reciting a case that had happened four years ago, when six children got diarrhea after eating Camembert. The only possible conclusion, they argued, was that the rules of production had to be changed, and raw milk had to be removed from the picture. After all, the health of children, pregnant women and the elderly was at stake. This message, disseminated with the full force of a major corporation, did in fact threaten the livelihoods of cheesemakers in Normandy, who felt that they had been drawn into a war that had descended upon them out of nowhere.

The home of Camembert is a region of rolling hills, 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Paris, known as Pays d'Auge. The English Channel is nearby, as are the beaches of the legendary Normandy invasion. Farther inland, this is the French countryside of picture postcards, complete with cows and calves grazing under apple trees, old hedges lining little country roads and hunched-over farmers carrying bags of nuts on their backs. The region looks like a snapshot of good old France, reflecting the longings of a nation that has never quite gotten over its transition from agrarian to industrial society.

Most of the nine remaining Camembert producers have their cheese dairies here, while a few others are farther out on the Cotentin, the neatly serrated peninsula with the city of Cherbourg at its tip. Their names -- Gillot, Graindorge, Réaux and Leroux -- are as venerable as the tradition which, as legend has it, began in 1791, when a priest from the Brie region, who had fled from the Revolution, showed Marie Harel, a local dairy farmer, how to make cheese. There is probably little truth to this story, but many in the region like to believe it, and it has been told so many times that countless monuments to Marie Harel have been built over the centuries in a region where many cities and villages have given their names to a variety of cheese: Livarot, Neufchâtel, Pont l'Evêque, Camembert.

In Camembert, a village consisting of a few houses and a small church, old ladles, churns, butter tubs and round, faded cheese labels are on display at the local museum, the Maison du Camembert. A similar, but larger museum is located in nearby Vimoutiers, and many other monuments and shrines to Camembert have been built. Songs have been sung and poems written about Camembert, and it eventually rose to prominence as France's national cheese during World War I, when Camembert makers gave a day's worth of production to soldiers on the front once a week. The word Camembert carries a lot of weight in France.

Arduous Work

A five-minute drive from the village, François Durand stands in his hot, humid cheese dairy every morning. He is the world's smallest producer of traditional Camembert, and the only farmer who makes his Camembert solely with the milk of his own cows. Durand is a thin, bespectacled man with bad teeth, who sometimes sings as he works. But he is silent most of the time.

On this morning, his 60 cows have yielded more than 600 liters of milk, enough to make 254 wheels of cheese. Durand walks around long tables made of Inox steel, uses a ladle to scoop the thickly set raw milk into cheese molds, attentively filling them, one at a time, like a waiter serving food at a banquet. During the course of the morning, he goes through the same motion five times with each mold, performing it 1,000-1,500 times a day. It is monotonous, arduous work, but it is part of the rules of the Camembert Charter, "moulé à la louche," which, loosely translated, means: Only manual labor produces good cheese.

In dark rooms next to the cheese dairy, the wheels ripen away aromatically, after they have been salted, after they have acquired their shell of good fungi, each 250-gram piece turning into a handful of pleasure, each containing upwards of 45 percent fat.

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