As an unrepentant Astérix addict, I have long wondered whether the explosive cheese featured in the hero’s Corsican adventure is as dangerous as depicted. (For the uninitiated, the tiny leaf-wrapped casgiu merzu was so violently pungent that it self-ignited and pulverized a pirate galley.) My mind drifted back to the subject of cheese – the non-combustible kind – when searching for a light-hearted theme on which to end the otherwise grim 2022. For months I have been following the fallout from an epic battle between artisan and industrial cheesemakers over one of the world’s most famous cheeses, Camembert – that disk of creamy, ivory-colored delight which, according to the poet Léon-Paul Fargue, smells of God’s feet. (The childish slang term for the mouth, la boîte à camembert, is an oblique reference to the cheese’s funky odor.) Here’s the story so far.
Although Camembert originates from the eponymous Normandy village where it was conceived in the 18th-century, it has long been a victim of its own success. In the late 1900s, thanks to the widespread availability of boxwood and the expansion of the railroads, the cheeses were individually packaged and shipped across France. Such was their popularity that they were imitated in all parts of the country, though always under the generic name of Camembert. Since the Protected Designation of Origin system, which certifies that certain foods come from a specific geographical area, had yet to be invented, the link between the cheese and its Norman home was inevitably weakened. Nevertheless, after decades of pride-driven effort, local artisan cheesemakers were finally granted the Camembert de Normandie label, guaranteeing that their produce was made in Normandy with unpasteurized milk from Normande cows. But the unfailing popularity of le calendos, as the cheese is known in slang, inevitably attracted industrial producers who, for commercial reasons, wanted to mass-produce it using pasteurized milk in order to extend the shelf life. To sidestep the PDO stipulation, they baptized their factory-made product Camembert fabriqué en Normandie (manufactured in Normandy), a verbal sleight of hand that outraged artisans. After a lengthy tug of war, a compromise was proposed that would have allowed both pasteurized and unpasteurized versions to be sold under a single label of origin. However, that solution was nixed by traditional producers, who lodged a series of complaints. Eventually, the upstart fabriqué en Normandie label was scrapped by the authorities, ostensibly to avoid confusion. However, the higher cost of producing artisan cheese and the fact that so many consumers have become accustomed to the pasteurized stuff might mean that Camembert de Normandie will eventually become a niche product.
Anyone who thinks that these Camembert wars are just a storm in a milk churn does not fully understand the significance of cheese in France. To start with, the numbers are astonishing. When Charles de Gaulle complained that a country with (approximately) 258 cheese varieties was ungovernable, he was way off the mark: The most recent data from the national dairy federation, CNIEL, put the total at a staggering 1,200. In terms of individual consumption, too, France is in the forefront, with around 57 pounds per person annually. Cheese also occupies a lofty position in the cultural firmament (there’s a rich, creamy number named after the 19th-century epicurean philosopher Brillat-Savarin). Le fromage has inspired classical writers, from Rabelais to Zola (“fat-faced cheeses veined in blue and yellow, like the victims of some shameful disease common to rich people who have eaten too many truffles”). One of the best-known works, rote-learned by generations of elementary schoolers, is a 17th-century fable by Jean de la Fontaine in which a fox uses flattery to trick a crow out of a wheel of delicious Brie. So well-known is the piece, a reworking of Aesop, that it is often used in philosophy classes (“Does the fox covet only the cheese, i.e. an object, or the superiority derived from possession of said object?”). It’s hard to imagine Monterey Jack, say, inspiring the same level of metaphysical enquiry.
In fact, cheese has been an integral part of French history for two millennia. As early as the 1st century BCE, the historian Pliny the Elder enthused about the cheeses brought back from France by occupying Roman legions. Charlemagne was fond of Roquefort; Louis XVI, fleeing for his life, made the fatal error of stopping to snack on cheese; Napoleon lopped the top off a pyramid-shaped Valençay because it recalled his humiliating defeat in Egypt – these and other stories are part of the nation’s fabric and identity, from the cheesemaker’s barn to the bourgeois’ table. As one expert observer has noted, the country’s entire history can be seen in the light of traditional, artisan cheesemaking “as a constant interaction between morals and politics.” In sum, he says, French cheeses provide a strong sense of identity and continuity.
And of course, France is aggressively patriotic about its cheese, as it is with many things (after all, “chauvinist” is a French word). The idea that other nations might come close to French perfection is risible, with possible allowances for Italy (mozzarella) and Greece (feta). We might give a grudging hat-tip to the British for Cheddar, but Americans? Why, their cheese comes in tubes.
Language, or rather phraseology, is a problem here, because “American cheese” is not only a collective noun but a specific descriptor for the plasticky orange-colored substance often found on hamburger patties. (An online search starting with “American cheese is…” will offer top-line results such as “… not cheese,” “plastic,” or simply “…bad.”) On a related note, think of the number of idiomatic Americanisms in which “cheese” has negative connotations (“cheesed off,” “tough cheese,” “cheesy grin” to name but a few). But to associate the U.S. entirely with processed or industrial products is obviously unfair and deliberately blinkered. In particular, it ignores a vibrant artisan cheese movement with hundreds of individual producers and a national grassroots body – the American Cheese Society – that promotes home and farmstead cheesemaking.
To be fair, though, Americans themselves have a complex relationship with cheese, for reasons that are both historical and cultural. According to food writer Laura Werlin, American cheese developed primarily as a processed product: “We took to factories fairly quickly in our country’s evolution and as a result, people got used to manufactured cheese,” she explains. As industrialization took off in the early 20th century, production shifted from farms to factories. The number and types of cheeses were standardized; and pasteurization – which by then was widespread and affordable – became the norm to ensure hygiene and safety on an industrial scale. In the 1940s, concerned by disease outbreaks apparently caused by the few remaining raw-milk cheeses on the market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended and subsequently ruled that cheeses should be pasteurized, and that anything made with raw milk – bonjour le camembert – should age for at least 60 days at a temperature of no less than 35°F. That ruling, still in force, means that ordinary Americans have scant opportunity to explore the subtle yet complex flavors of “real” cheese.
The lack of gustatory opportunity is compounded by cultural issues. Having grown up on a diet of shiny slices or bland pizza-topping goo, many consumers are reticent to venture any farther. “Ew, this stuff has mold growing on it!” is a common reaction to ripe Roquefort, say, or well-aged Bleu d’Auvergne. For timid non-turophiles, the most repulsive aspect of many unprocessed cheeses is their odor. In short, they stink. Which theoretically means they might be dangerous. Indeed, for a society that places a premium on cleanliness, smell is a danger marker associated with filth. In her book Chasing Dirt, the U.S. historian Suellen Hoy explores America’s obsession with being clean. She highlights how, for more than a century, people have aspired to be part of the “sweatless, odorless, and successful middle class.” And how, in the popular imagination, proper plumbing and shiny teeth are more important than, say, medieval castles or haute-couture fashion as symbols of the nation’s identity. Seen through this pristine lens, anything that might tickle the nostrils with the scent of the farmyard is a throwback to a more primitive time, in the same category as underarm hair or bidets.
Yet despite these ingrained attitudes, skilled American cheesemakers are doing their utmost to change hearts and minds, not to mention palates. One of their biggest hurdles is economic. Artisan cheeses are more expensive to produce and complicated to distribute than their industrial counterparts. “If there were more small-scale producers, then the perception of American cheese would change,” says the owner of one Maryland-based creamery. “But a lot of Americans want luxurious foods at a regular price.” Another barrier is reputation: Traditional French cheeses enjoy a prestige that raises them above domestic rivals. Ironically, those traditions, which are strictly codified and minutely defined, can be an advantage for U.S. producers, who have greater freedom to experiment (think raw cow’s milk cheese wrapped in spruce bark strips and washed in beer). Lastly, exports are costly because of a slew of tariffs and taxes. More recently, though, American cheese imports have been boosted by shortfalls in European milk production. Surprisingly, France is America’s third biggest customer. While volumes are still comparatively small, le fromage américain is no longer the outlandish idea it might have been a decade ago. I doubt that Camembert or Cantal will be superseded by Vermont Shepherd or Californian Red Hawk anytime soon, but I hope my fellow countrymen will take the plunge and seek out the best of American cheeses. All being well, none will explode.