These triangular cream cheeses combining comté, emmental, gouda, edam, and cheddar are actually a French invention, and known as La Vache Qui Rit. Sold in little round boxes, these snacks are part of fond childhood memories in France. The lighter version is also a best-seller in the United States, where it is sold in supermarkets as the Laughing Cow.
The saga of La Vache Qui Rit (literally “the cow who laughs’’) began in France in 1865 when Jules Bel established himself as a master Gruyere cheese ripener in Orgelet (Jura). The company that went on to become the Bel group (which now owns Babybel, Kiri, and Apéricube) was a small family business at the time. Jules’ son, Léon Bel, had high hopes of transforming the traditional cheesemaking operation into a modern enterprise, but his dreams were dashed by the start of World War I.
Léon Bel was assigned to supplying the troops with fresh meat. In an effort to boost morale, the army’s canteen division launched a competition to choose a mascot for their battalion’s crest. Léon Bel’s regiment put forward a chuckling cow drawn by illustrator Benjamin Rabier. The soldiers quickly saw the humorous potential, and nicknamed it “Wachkyrie” in a mocking parody of the Valkyries — figures from Germanic mythology and emblems of the German armed forces.
After the war, Léon Bel returned to the family business. He began producing and selling melted cheese made using a revolutionary Swiss technique invented several years before. Thanks to the new method, cheese could be kept for longer and at room temperature. Then in 1919, he received the music score for a funny foxtrot dance written by a former regiment comrade.
Hoping to make his friends laugh, the soldier had illustrated the score with Rabier’s drawing. The inspiration was immediate, and in 1921 Léon Bel patented the La Vache Qui Rit brand. He even personally drew the mascot on the first packaging, portraying it standing, laughing, and proclaiming: “Giving your milk is nothing when you know it’s put to good use.”
Léon Bel, a Marketing Pioneer
The businessman first used metal boxes, then cardboard packaging to present his cheese in triangular portions. Benjamin Rabier developed his original drawing of the cow, replacing its brown color with a red coat and a white muzzle. So the story goes, Léon Bel’s wife had the idea of making the cow more feminine by adding the now-iconic earrings in a meta-reference to the box itself.
Poster for La Vache Qui Rit based on a drawing by Benjamin Rabier, 1927.
Léon Bel went on to use the logo to decorate a number of objects aimed at children. Long before the rise of Disney characters, the red cow was all the rage on blotting papers, book covers, and pencils. The bovine star was also featured in the Tour de France from 1933 until 2009, and even took part in the 2012 French presidential elections.
It announced it was running for president at the Paris Agriculture Fair under the name of the Parti d’en Rire. Supported by its campaign staff — the (virtual) inhabitants of the factory — it pulled out of the race just before the first round of voting. La Vache Qui Rit also opened a space to the public in Lons-le-Saunier (Jura) in 2009, offering a museum recounting the brand’s history and a contemporary art exhibition center.
Healthy Cheese Snacks Enjoyed by Americans
The Bel group set its sights on the North American market in the 1970s, starting with Canada where its products were an instant success. However, the Group had to contend with a rival in the United States: Borden Cheese’s Elsie the Cow, who was the star of U.S. dairy products and even had her own cartoon show. Unruffled, the Laughing Cow snubbed its competition and established itself as a gourmet product at a higher price.
In 2005, the fad diet known as the South Beach Diet developed by famed cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston recommended the lighter version of the French melted cheese as a daily snack. The boxes of Laughing Cow light flew off the shelves.
This success was however threatened by the French-American crisis sparked by the invasion of Iraq. In an effort to avoid a boycott similar to the “freedom fries” affair, the cheese was rechristened Creamy Swiss Original. But any American consumer looking closely enough would notice that the tricolor flag — and not the Swiss cross — was still displayed on the packaging…
Three Production Sites in the U.S.
Driven by the South Beach Diet, demand increased threefold in just a few weeks. Bel had to adapt to the legislation governing French-American trade in order to keep up supply to its local factory in Kentucky. The Group began exporting a slightly different version of the melted cheese under the new name, thereby avoiding the quota systems.
This initiative barely lasted a year, but led Bel to boost its U.S. production by 30%. American food giant Kraft finally put an end to the frenzy when it acquired the rights to the South Beach Diet. The book by Dr. Agatston no longer mentions the Laughing Cow, but simply encourages consumers to eat melted cheese.
Today, three American Bel factories — Leitchfield in Kentucky, Little Chute in Wisconsin, and Brookings in South Dakota — continue to produce the Laughing Cow and other Bel products. It is currently estimated that almost 10% of U.S. households enjoy this cheese, without necessarily being aware of its French origins. The assimilation is complete!