France has long been renowned for its cheeses and the important role they have in French dining. However, some traditional varieties are dying out, threatening a way of life.
Fast food threatens France's tradition of cheese
France has long been renowned for its cheeses and the important role they have in French dining. However, some traditional varieties are dying out, threatening a way of life
The French have never been allowed to forget that General Charles de Gaulle once asked how anyone could expect a country to govern itself when it had 246 varieties of cheese.
After the fall of Paris to the Nazis, the British prime minister Winston Churchill had made the same point but as a rallying cry, saying a nation with so many cheeses could not die.
The true figure grew in recent decades to about 1,200. And whether such riches of choice sharpen France's ungovernable streak, or stiffen national resolve, the cheeseboard is as important an element of traditional French dining as baguettes and wine.
But the proliferation of variety conceals unpalatable news.
Just as more and more French people are turning to fast food, and away from leisurely long lunches, they are increasingly looking beyond the cheeses for which their own country is renowned with the result that some traditional varieties are dying out.
"Each year, the proportion of industrial, pasteurised cheeses consumed in France - whether produced here or abroad - goes up by comparison with artisanal varieties," said Veronique Richez-Lerouge, the president of the Association Fromages de Terroir (AFT).
The association campaigns vigorously to protect what it sees as a vital part of French culture. It even distributes calendars in which women from a range of professions, and the dairy industry itself, strike glamorous poses in such guises as Miss Camembert, Miss Pont L'Eveque, Miss Brie, each month representing a different cheese.
The French still eat an average of nearly 25kg per head a year, second only in Europe to the Greeks. But the most recent figures showed raw-milk cheeses now accounting for only 7 per cent of total consumption - a far cry from the days, up to about 70 years ago, when the French ate virtually no other.
What the AFT calls "pasteurised, sanitised and lightweight" products, from France's own industrialised cheese industry or feta, emmental and mozzarella from Greece, Switzerland and Italy, now dominate the market.
Tighter health regulations have been cited by major producers when ceasing raw-milk production.
But in a discussion at the website of the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, one reader summed up the concern of connoisseurs: "I stopped eating (my preferred) camembert the day they abandoned raw milk because it no longer had any taste. And I cannot be the only one; they were forced to close a factory and lay people off."
For traditional cheese makers, still present in every region of France except Brittany, moves towards uniform taste reflect the country's growing attachment to fast food.
"In more and more households, women no longer cook but rely on prepared foods, their children obviously act no differently so that in two generations the art of cooking is gone," said Ms Richez-Lerouge.
In the past 30 years, as many as 50 handcrafted raw-milk cheeses have disappeared. The process has no respect for heritage: even cheeses such as cantal, from the Auvergne, or banon, made in Provence, known in France for more than 2,000 years, are under threat.
Although France continues to make large quantities for overseas consumption, exports are said to have fallen by just under 5 per cent last year to a total value of €2.5 billion (Dh12.11bn).
Competition is undoubtedly tougher. The British media noted this month that such UK-produced blue cheeses as Stilton now comfortably outsell French varieties in the biggest supermarket chain, Tesco.
But some French producers are fighting back, and even bucking the trend.
Comte, whose annual output of 52,000 tonnes makes the Franche-Comte region France's biggest producer of cheese bearing the Appellation d'origine controlee certificate of origin, recently launched a push in the UK.
"We can only speak for ourselves, but the market for our cheese is still very strong," said Aurelia Chimer, in charge of communications. Sales had maintained a small percentage growth, leading to increased production and a decision to promote the product abroad.
Other manufacturers may be heartened by Comte's resilience. But other traditional producers are wary.
"We are fighting as hard as we can and must remain optimistic," said Ms Richez-Lerouge. "But a way of life is at threat. Each time a variety vanishes, it affects the economic life of a whole village or area, and breaks a link that can never be replaced."