Cutting the Cheese

The Favourite Nibble of the Surrender Monkeys

France boasts of having a cheese for every day of the year. Even Frenchmen sometimes wonder why this is a boast: “How can one govern a country with 246 cheeses?”, General de Gaulle once moaned. 

Hard Cheese on the Moors

It is generally accepted that Arabs first discovered cheese when desert nomads stored milk in sheep stomachs for long treks, found it solidified and then ate the resultant evil-smelling paste. Cheese arrived in France with successive waves of Moorish immigration. One band halted in the Poitou region to herd their goats ("Chabli" in Arabic, whence the names of two sorts of cheese derive: "chabis" and "chabichou") and introduced cheese to the region. The French word "fromage" has been used since 1180 , to replace the word "formage" (from the slang Latin "Formaticus", i.e. "made in a mould"). In 1267, in the Doubs region, the first "fruitières" (the ancestor of dairy cooperatives) produced big wheels of cheese (Beaufort, Emmental, Comté). None of this helped the Moors of Poitou who had all been impaled, burned at the stake or exiled by Charles Martel after the battle of Tours back in 732.

Slices of France

1. France manufactures around 500 different cheeses.

2. The French consume 1,207,000 tonnes of cheese a year (compared with 1,012,000 tonnes in Germany and 615,000 tonnes in the UK).

3. Individually, a Frenchman eats 22.5kg of cheese a year (compared with 14kg for the average American)

4. In 2000, France produced 1,605,000 tonnes of cheese (making it the world’s second largest producer of cheese after the US with 3,830,000).

5. In 2003, France exported €1.9 billion-worth of its cheeses around the world,.

6. 60% of the cost of cheese production in France is subsidised by the European taxpayer. The EU also provides an export subsidy of 25c for every pound of French cheese exported.

7. France suffers around 750,000 cases of food poisoning every year with 70,000 hospitalisations and 400 deaths. Many of these relate to salmonella and listeria infections from the consumption of unpasteurised cheeses.

The Death of Cheese?

France's cheeses are slowly dying out, nibbled away by the industrial brands and EU hygiene laws but also because paranoid peasant cheese-makers refuse to pass on their pungent secrets. "In 30 years, more than fifty cheese have been struck off the menus because of this. The Mont-d'Or galette, which had been produced for four hundred years, disappeared this summer following the death of the last producer who knew the secret of how to make it," said Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president of the Association Fromages de Terroirs (Regional Cheese Association). "Fifteen years ago, there were two producers of Bergues left. Now there’s one. He’s eighty and won’t tell anyone else his recipe.”

The McDonald’s Of Cheese

The French deride McDonald’s hamburgers as “malbouffe” (crap food) or “McMerde”, something cheap, nasty and industrially produced. So why, asks Pierre Broisard in “Camembert: A National Myth” (2003) are the French not making a stink about the best-known of all their cheeses? Presented as a white, flat wheel, Camembert’s aroma, in which sophisticates think they can detect vague tonalities of wild mushrooms, is like having a cowpat rubbed in your face. Like most famous cheeses, it carries the French appellation contrôlée. However, the powerful Camembert producers have so twisted the otherwise stringent AOC rules so that any cheese produced anywhere, even outside France (for cheaper production costs) can call itself Camembert. By the 1980s, the manufacturing process was automated in industrial plants. Robots with twenty arms now mimic traditional human actions. Today Camembert factories in Normandy, the five largest of which turn out about 1.5m Camemberts a day, employ a workforce of fewer than five hundred. "No cheese here has been touched by human hands”, Boisard quotes one factory manager as saying. Today 90% of all Camembert is now produced industrially – 30% of it outside France (including in China). The French eat 800 tonnes a year and though it is, as Boisard says, “Pasturised, homogenised crap”, Jose Bové has yet to trash a single cheese shop.

France’s Smelliest Cheeses – Official!

1. Vieux Boulogne: cows' milk cheese from Pas de Calais.

2. Pont l'Evêque: cows' milk cheese from Normandy.

3. Camembert de Normandie: cows' milk cheese.

4. Munster: cows' milk cheese from Alsace-Lorraine.

5. Brie de Meaux: cows' milk cheese from Ile de France.

6. Roquefort: sheep's milk cheese from near Toulouse.

7. Reblochon: cows' milk cheese from Savoie region.

8. Livarot: cows' milk cheese from Normandy.

9. Banon: goats' milk cheese from Provence.

10. Epoisses de Bourgogne: cows' milk cheese from Burgundy.

Cheese Wars

For many years France and the United States were locked in a cheese war. In 2001, the European Union, prompted by heavy French lobbying, unilaterally slapped an import ban on US beef. The US responded 100% import tariffs on luxury goods from Europe, including Roquefort cheese. Before the punitive tariff was imposed, 460 tonnes of Roquefort was sold there. Sales fell by 30% after the higher taxes doubled the price in US stores. Perhaps more damaging to the French cheese industry was that Americans, angered by the opposition of President Chirac to the removal of Saddam Hussein, boycotted French goods – including cheese. One French internet cheesemonger who sold most of his Camembert and Roquefort to Americans became the first victim of the fast-ripening stink over Iraq which soured Franco-US relations. Marc Refabert, the co-founder of, which did more than 80% of its business with America, said his company's sales had fallen "substantially". "I'm getting inundated with emails from people saying they're not going to buy my products until France changes it's position," he said. "They're showing their patriotism, I guess – you can't argue with them. What good would it do?”. The International Cheese Intelligence Unit (yes, there is such a thing), estimated that French cheese sales in the US fell by 23% between 2004 and 2005. 

French Cheese Is Merde

Anyone stuck on a crowded Métro in high summer can justifiably suspect that the French have a strange yearning for earthy, not to say musky aromas given off by the human body and its various leavings. But their coprophiliac tendencies, as food journalists Denise Thatcher and Malcolm Scott have noted, rise to the fore when it comes to their cheeses. Here are their reviews:

“Crottins de Chavignol – tiny, hard, goat’s milk cheeses with black or grey-brown rids. Horribly sharp and salty when fully aged and intimidating... The names means ‘horse droppings’.

“Selles-sur-Cher – a sweet, nutty goat’s milk cheese which is covered with salt and charcoal, giving it a black coating. Selle means stool (in the lavatorial sense).

“Bouton de Culotte – extra-small goat’s milk cheeses, dried for winter use; extra sharp with a dark grey rind. Its name, ‘trouser button’, comes from its unmistakable stench, very like that of urine.

“Pouligny-Saint-Perre – a small, pyramid-shaped goat’s milk cheese with a tangy flavour. To augment its natural flavour, like compost, it is ripened in rotting leaves.”


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