• Is Camembert really being "murdered"? (Getty Images)
The fate of ‘true’ Camembert made with unpasteurised milk hangs in the balance.
By
Lucy Rennick

7 Jun 2018 - 3:19 PM  UPDATED 5 Jun 2018 - 5:47 PM

The French are not interested in letting things slide – particularly when it comes to the nation’s storied culinary heritage. Make a baguette with anything other than what’s listed in the 1933 bread decree, and it’s not a French baguette, but a lowly imitation. In April this year, French lawmakers banned vegetarian products labelled as ‘sausages’ or ‘steaks’ on the grounds of false advertising. And who can ever forget the infamous Champagne debate?

For the French, food is serious business – and it doesn’t get more serious than Camembert cheese.

Nevertheless, this sacrosanct dairy delicacy is the latest source of much contention within the community of French winemakers, cheesemongers and chefs. The reason? Raw milk. 

‘True’ Camembert cheese is made from raw, unpasteurised milk from the Normande breed of cattle. It’s known as a ‘pre-modern’ process, but the result is a runny, gorgeously gooey cheese with a lingering smell. Such cheeses (and only those cheeses) can be called “Camembert de Normandie”, thanks to prestigious Appellation d'Origine Protégée criteria, while their mass-produced counterparts are commonly labelled “Fabriqué en Normandie”, or “made in Normandy”.

From 2021 onwards, the AOP labelling system will be expanded to include Camembert cheese made with pasteurised milk in factories, so long as 30 per cent of the milk comes from Normandy cows. France’s Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO), the body that governs policy related to French produce, has decided to relax the restrictions surrounding food labelling in an attempt to level the playing field between small, artisanal Camembert makers and larger producers. 

The reaction has been decidedly French (for lack of a better word). Strongly worded headlines decrying the “murder” of true French Camembert have spread far and wide, and an open letter urging President Emmanuel Macron to intervene is garnering support online.

“The most popular of the tricolor cheeses … will switch into pasteurisation,” the letter reads. “It will lose its character and its typicité, to become a vulgar soft paste without taste … It's not Camembert anymore.”

The vitriolic letter continues: “Shame, scandal, fraud … the words are not strong enough to denounce the deceit which France, the creator of the system of appellations of origin that it brandishes everywhere, will be accused of having committed if the French do not protest.”

“Mr President of the Republic, Mr Minister of Agriculture, we demand a Camembert raw milk for all! Let’s help dairy producers by aiming for quality while respecting our traditions!”

The letter ends with a stirring line, which could end up being the catchphrase of the century: “Freedom, equality, Camembert!”

Strongly worded headlines decrying the “murder” of true French Camembert have spread far and wide, and an open letter urging President Emmanuel Macron to intervene is garnering support online.

Impassioned responses aside, The New York Times reports that most of the 65,000 tons of Camembert sold in France each year is crafted with pasteurised milk; the AOP artisans only produce around 6000 tons annually.

It’s rare to find cheese made with unpasteurised milk in Australia, as dairy products must comply with strict Food Standards Australia New Zealand regulations; the body has assessed that milk that hasn’t been processed is associated with salmonella and other potentially harmful food-borne illnesses.

According to INAO, the new AOP Normandy Camembert label is “an upmarket market move for everyone”. The Local reported the agreement will give consumers “more transparency” and will lead to healthier dairy herds in Normandy.

We're not sure it will convince any open-letter signatories, however.

Is this a battle of semantics, or is there something larger at stake? Perhaps it’s an argument best settled over (true) Camembert and a bottle of Champagne.

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