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The Cheese Show

Cheese Expo Ends Too Much of a Good Thing Today

Paris:- Wednesday, 28 February 1996:- The French eat more cheese than the Italians, who are the second largest consumers of cheese in the world. The French are supposed to spend about a 1000 francs a year on cheese, and that buys them 22 kilos. If a Frenchman was stranded on a desert island, and one had one food to choose from, that food would be cheese.

Facts, facts, facts - but what my press kit does not say, is why this is only the 3rd annual Cheese salon (3éme Salon du Fromage et des Produits Latiers), and apparently it is only taking place for the second year at the same time and place as the Salon de l'Agriculture. For all that, I can find no mention of the 'edition' of the big salon itself. There are a lot of words about 'heritage' but precious few numbers. Cheese is, after all food, and we all know that it grows on farms. The myth has it that the French have more different kinds of cheese than you can shake a baguette at - but again I find no number.

In Paris, there are shops that have nothing but cheese. Every marché has its cheese merchants. Everybody eats it all the time; even without meals. 'Heritage' and numbers go together; are the French, in fact, modest about their cheese?

Cheese in France is not some sort of poor relation. There is a sickening amount of fantastic cheese in France. I am not exaggerating. At the small cheese counter in my local mini-supermarket, I often stop and look at the cheese even when I intend to buy none - just to look at - well, if I'm that close, I smell it too. This small display probably has fifty different cheeses; that's what I meant: the choice is sickening. If you choose one, then that reminds you of the other one, over there, and that in turn, leads to a third, and so on. If you waver, if you... can... make a choice, you end up buying at least three and that'll be at least 60 francs at the checkout. And then the cheeses I've bought remind me of the wines that go with them, and if I waver just a little bit - the family's weekly household finances are vaporized. But I really hate going over there, and not looking at the cheeses.
What the French cheese community is afraid of these days, are the 'Euro-food' regulations. Cheese is a natural product, that regulators do not like to see being offered to the public - unless every last natural microbe it contains has been hammered to death. Germany's 'Pure Beer Laws' face the same regulators.

Ironically, it is the famous French scientist, Dr Louis Pasteur, and his 'pasteurization' that is the enemy of natural food products and the champion of the 'Euro-food' regulations.

The French cheese producers, who make some very peculiar cheeses indeed, argue that the modern logistics of distribution negate the public health need for all food products to be pasteurized; or 'cooked' to death. The producers are the first to be aware that the consumer's health is at stake - and rigorous sanitation regulations mixed with self-interest, permit the manufacture, distribution and sales of cheeses made from non-pasteurized milk.

'Pure beer' on the other hand, does not travel well or far - so it is drunk on the spot - mostly in Bavaria. You can be pretty sure that if you are drinking a Bavarian beer outside the borders of that state, it will not be the 'pure beer' found inside it - it will be a 'Euro-approved' 'export' version that has only the vaguest resemblance to the original. The same probably goes for pilsen.

In the world of French cheese, there is a mini-revolution going on under the name of A.O.C. - which stands for 'Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée' - which is familiar to wine consumers, and means about the same thing.

About 10 percent of the cheese made in France carries the AOC label; it certifies that the cheese comes from a particular region and is made in a way traditional to that region. These cheeses are pasteurized or not, and can come from any animal that produces milk. In volume, the most widespread AOC cheeses are Comté, Roquefort, Cantal, and Reblochon; and there are 30 others that are recognized. Although the AOC system is typically French, but there are Italian AOCs and a single English AOC type, Stilton.

You thought I forgot Camembert? Ah, no. If camembert is produced in Normandy, it may carry the AOC badge. The name 'camembert' is in the public domain and it is produced all around the world, but no camembert produced outside of Normandy will ever carry an 'AOC.' The real thing will say 'Camembert de Normandie' on the label.

France produced 1.5 million tons (metric, I assume) of cheese in 1995, North America produced 3.4 million and eastern Europe, 2.2 million tons. Germany was Europe's second largest producer, being just slightly behind France. Besides cheese, France exported a million tons of milk, 300 thousand of powdered milk, and 87 thousand tons of butter, mostly to Russia.

Thanks to French cows, sheep, goats, zebu and buffalos, there really are more different kinds of cheese in France than you can shake a baguette at. Ah, so you want to know about the 'zebu' (zébu) and the buffalo (bufflonne)? I have never personally seen the Indian cow, a cross between a yak and a cow, nor the young, presumably African, buffalo, in France - but if the cheese people say they make cheese from them here, who am I to say they don't?


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