For the cheese-lover, France is mecca: a site of pilgrimage, and a land of rapture. And one of the defining reasons for this fact is the large number of small-scale raw milk cheese producers that live and work in the region. Who can forget the witticism of Charles de Gaulle who quipped, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
NOT IN THE U.S.
Cheese lovers in the United States must content themselves with cheeses, both imported and domestically produced, that abide by the FDA’s cheese laws, which specify that cheese must either be made from pasteurized milk or aged at least 60 days. The industrial makers of the cow’s milk cheeses such as Brie, Camembert and St. André, have adapted to the American market by pasteurizing the milk they use for the cheeses they export. Other cheeses, such as the wood ash-filled Morbier or the St. Nectaire, are sent to the United States after the 60 days’ aging period, making them far older than the age at which they are commonly consumed here in France. The extra aging renders these cheeses more pungent, so they differ substantially from their counterparts in France. But many cheeses from France never cross the Atlantic due to the fact that they are made from raw milk and then sold anywhere from the day of their fabrication to six weeks of age. This is the case with the majority of goat cheeses in Provence.
To enjoy the fresh and delicate flavor of the Gardian from the Camargue river delta region of Provence, you must purchase it directly from the cheese-maker at a local market. This cheese is sold in its whey at one day old and eaten with a drizzle of olive oil and herbs. The Banon de Banon is a sweet curdle goat cheese from Haute Provence, known for its small round form wrapped in chestnut leaves. Protected by Appellation of Controlled Origin (AOC) laws, this cheese is ready to eat after two weeks’ aging. Age it far beyond a month and it can become a completely different cheese, far more pungent, and much less desirable. The fresh young goat cheese sold in the United States must be made from pasteurized milk. It is packaged in vacuum seal wrap and must be kept refrigerated. By contrast, in Provence, what starts out as a similar fresh goat cheese made from raw milk, evolves at room temperature from a tart lactic acid cheese, to a mild, creamy, runny cheese to a pungent hard cheese that eventually shrinks in size due to dehydration, which is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. This process is impossible and potentially even dangerous for pasteurized goat cheese. The moist, pasteurized, dead medium of the cheese contains no enzymes and no natural lactic bacteria activity and is therefore an ideal growing ground for many harmful pathogens. For now, only those who visit France will be able to taste raw milk goat cheese in its many guises and through its many stages.
And yet, this great tradition of raw milk cheeses has come under attack as France seeks to comply with the new food regulations coming from Brussels and the European Union (EU).
Not all cheeses in France are made with raw milk. There is a relatively new production method that lies between raw milk and pasteurized called thermisation, in which the milk is heated to a temperature just below that which kills the enzyme phosphatase. On a label, the cheese-maker can still call this “raw milk,” but in fact it is relatively (if not completely) dead milk that requires the addition of fermenting agents. This method is used for certain soft-centered cow’s milk cheeses, and Christian Fleury, my local cheese-maker from the village of Noves, has told me that it was in these cheeses that occurred an outbreak of Lysteria contamination in recent years.
Over the last 20 years, the French cheese-makers have gone to battle to defend their right to produce raw milk cheese, facing the opposition which has spread fear of this traditional product through advertisements, televised reports and newspaper articles—often inspired by the anti-raw milk stance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In a country where the cooperation of small businesses to defend their common interests is practically unknown, the farmer/cheese-makers have managed not only to unite, but also to work together towards greater recognition of their product. They have established a definition of their occupation, created a charter of rules and lobbied successfully for the new EU laws to take into account the realities of raw milk cheese. These cheese-makers have many foes within the EU bureaucracy—often from the pays hygienistes (overly hygiene-concerned countries) as Christian has called them—who would like to apply hygiene codes which are, in many situations, inapplicable and inappropriate to cheese.
Living and working in Provence for more than ten years now, firmly ensconced in my life as a culinary teacher and guide, I’ve researched the world of raw milk goat and sheep cheese production through farm visits, tastings and personal acquaintances. The traditional cheeses of this region are most often made with cooled (68F/20C) or warm (85F/30C) milk. Rennet, an enzyme found in the second stomach of a young ruminant (such as a goat, sheep or cow) is then applied in varying amounts, depending on the type of cheese desired, as the primary curdling agent. Less rennet is added to the cooler cheeses,as these also receive an innoculation from a batch of lactic acid from cheese of the day before. The result is a “lactic curdle,” what many of us would call a typical goat cheese, with that yogurty bite of lactic acid.
In the warmer style of production, larger amounts of rennet are added and the cheese “takes” or curdles in about an hour, producing a less acidic cheese (thus called a “sweet curdle”) that is pressed and aged to produce a Tome de Provence or the Banon de Banon. The Tome de Provence is the traditional cheese of this region, made by the shepherd’s wife in her kitchen. She made it with milk virtually at the temperature it has when it leaves the animal, using enough rennet (or a large enough snip of a dried second stomach) to curdle the cheese in an hour. It is the ideal cheese for a hot climate. It ages at the ambient temperature or in a cellar, wrapped in a bit of paper to prevent too quick a dehydration.
You do not often find cow’s milk cheeses in Provence and certainly no tradition of such there for, although Provence is a lovely place to visit, its climate is hot and fierce. Ground cover is rough and not always plentiful. The winds blow very hard and there is little shelter. The animals that do best here are adaptable and hardy, such as goats and sheep. Goats were, and still are, tended in the hills of the Alpilles, and the Cévennes to the west, and sheep covered the plains of the Crau between Arles and Marseille, traveling each summer to the heights of Haute Provence and the Alps beyond for the cool air and grass. To the south of Arles lies the Camargue. Here lives an indigenous race of cattle, called the toro, as well as indigenous white stocky horses. The cattle are fierce in temperament and serve mainly as a source of lean, range-fed meat and for dangerous games in the bull-ring. Getting close enough to milk one would not be advised. Hence, the traditional absence of dairy cows in the region, and of butter, from the traditional cuisine.
In the 1970s and 1980s, raw milk cheese-makers enjoyed a period of paradise. It was a time when many came back to the rural life from the cities, and cheese-making became a favored activity. It could support a small family, it was not excessively onerous as a job and, when done with respect for the animals and environment, it contributed to a healthy countryside, all virtues much espoused by the newly conscious who came of age in 1968—a period of political and social turbulence in France. The European Union had not yet begun to write laws affecting the cheese-makers or the outdoor markets.
It was during this period that Claudine Malbosc and her husband Yves opted to leave their office jobs in the city of Marseille and settle on the country farm of Claudine’s family in St. Martin de Crau to make goat cheese. Over the last twenty-five years they have raised two sons on goat’s milk, the entertaining sights of their mother milking the goats and making cheese and, when in the mood, Dad dancing with goats. They have also lived a rigorous life of early mornings, nary a day off and periodic floods that threaten all. But they relish the freedom of their occupation, the joy of caring for their 60 goats—all which they know by name—and making a product for which they can be proud, that people come from miles around to purchase. Claudine tells me that as she listens to the trials and tribulations of her old school friends who chose occupations such as bank teller or teacher, she is ever more grateful that she opted out of that world and into a world of traditional values and rhythm.
GETTING THEIR ACT TOGETHER
Christian Fleury and others followed a similar path. And each in his turn has been affected by the shift of policy with the arrival of the EU. As pressure mounted, and the war on raw milk cheeses took a serious turn, these small artisans had to quite simply “get their act together.” From this cooperation was born the Fédération Régionale des Elevages de Côte d’Azur Alpes Provence (FRECAP) [The Regional Federation of Animal Husbandry of the Cote D’Azur, the Alpes and Provence] in 1981, in order to speak in a united voice for the many Provence-based cheese-makers affected by the evolving political movements in Europe.
This new entity has helped define farmer-made cheese—fromage fermier—as cheese made under the following circumstances:
- A small family farm (1-3 workers, 5-200 animals)
- All the milk processed on the premises and coming from the animals raised and nourished on the premises
- The cheeses produced and aged on the premises and sold by the farmer himself.
These are the pillars of the federation. Of prime importance is the tenet that the cheese be made with milk from the family’s farm, and not milk purchased elsewhere. The alternatives, an artisan cheese-maker (who might purchase milk from a neighbor or other farm) and the industrial cheese-maker (large scale and bulk production that dominates the majority of the grocery stores), limit the control the cheese-maker has over the quality of his primary ingredient: the milk.
To assure a high quality of healthy raw milk to make his cheese, the cheese-maker must milk his own animals and use his own milk. If the cheese-maker purchases milk from another farmer who makes his living from selling milk by the quantity, will the latter be careful enough to exclude the milk of an animal with an infection? Or the milk of an animal on antibiotics? Or from one given hormones? Only the cheese-maker is fully aware of the potential destruction that bad milk can have on an entire day’s work and will carefully segregate out the sick animal and throw away the infected milk.
The Federation has gone further and established clear outlines for a cheese-making operation, respecting the EU hygiene laws in effect and encouraging the production of a high quality and safe raw milk cheese:
- Human scale production (7-200 animals)—no more than 120,000 litres (35,000 gallons) of milk production transformed into cheese per year. The average farm in Provence has about 45 animals.
- Traditional nourishment for a ruminant—high-quality hay, grazing, a small mix of grains as a complement. Here in Provence, we have the hay of the Crau, harvested four times yearly and respected for its mixture and quality. Some herds are also grazed in the hills of Provence on the thyme, rosemary, oak and other scrub brush.
- Clean barns, and sufficient space to roam—either bring the herds into the hills daily, or provide them with a pasture or prairie they can access freely. Barns must be built to allow two square meters per small animal (goat or sheep) and eight square meters per cow. Aeration of the barns is very important; many are built with an opening in the south wall to allow the animals to enter and exit freely.
- Respect for the natural reproduction cycle of the animal—goats naturally come into heat in the fall, and give birth from February to Easter. The cheese-maker thus allows them a period of rest during the last two months of gestation; no “de-seasoning” of an animal is allowed, a practice that employs hormonal therapy to force a period of heat in the spring to extend high milk production all year long. This rule permits the cheese-maker a well-earned vacation after 270 non-stop days of cheese production. The Federation also trains “replacement/substitute” cheese-makers who can be hired to care for the animals while the cheese-makers are away.
- Maintain a healthy herd—stress preventative measures over systematic medical intervention. Optimal sanitation, and testing for cleanliness of the milking machine. Cheese-makers use milking time to carefully look over each animal, check its health, remove burrs from the fur, inspect any insect bites or scratches, etc.
- All cheese produced on the farm is made with milk from the farm’s own animals. Except for machine milking, the cheese must be made with traditional methods. The cheese-maker must pay careful attention to hygiene, use only raw milk, regularly self-test and invite periodic spot tests by the Federation to guarantee the quality of his milk and the cleanliness of the cheese-making facilities. Testing for pathogenic germs harmful to humans—Lysteria, E.coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella—is regularly carried out by both the cheese-maker and the representative of the Federation.
- To be sold, the cheese must be marked with the name and address of the cheese-maker. Much of the cheese can be sold at a local market or from a farm stand, thus eliminating a middleman and reduced profits. Local restaurants, from the simplest to the most elegant, are proud to put fromages fermiers on their menus and are a faithful and important clientele base.
MARKET SALES ISSUES
Amongst the more important battles that the Federation has helped the cheese-makers win has to do with whether or not the cheese is transported in a refrigerated truck and sold from a refrigerated stand. Traditionally, raw milk cheese-makers packed their cheeses which had aged at 12C/55ºF into one or more insulated ice-boxes or coolers and, once at the market, set up a stand on a board of wood, at waist height, with plates of their various cheeses out for tasting, and a few in the open air ready to wrap up and sell. They had waxed paper on hand to wrap the cheeses in. Extra cheeses were kept in the ice-boxes/coolers till needed.
The EU made an attempt to impose very expensive refrigerated trucks and refrigerated stands (which required electricity to run—something not every outdoor market place was equipped with) upon the cheese makers. As with many laws, this set of regulations would have disproportionately affected the smaller producers, whose main source of sales were the markets. For the industrialists, it was a comparatively negligible investment. FRECAP has participated in studies showing that temperature, particularly refrigerator temperatures of 4C/40ºF or less, is not a factor in the safety of a raw milk cheese. The law will not now go into effect, and the small producers can still sell their wares at market.
The established food safety rules developed to assure safe transportation of an industrially produced item across hundreds of miles in a truck or train do not necessarily apply to raw milk cheese. For instance, the cardinal rule in the food industry is to refrigerate everything at 4C/40ºF or lower. But if you are selling a fresh cheese that was made at 20C/68ºF that should also be served at this temperature, why bring it down to 4C/40ºF and then bring it back up to 20C/68ºF? Or, if a cheese is ideally aged at 12C/55ºF, and the good bacteria that contribute to its evolution are killed below 8C/48ºF, why then have it delivered and presented in highly refrigerated conditions? Recent studies done by the Federation have shown that cheeses brought from the farm to the market and back again, even multiple times, which experienced shifts in temperature from the stable 12C/55ºF aging room up to 25C/78ºF of the market stand, did not develop any noxious bacteria. In fact, they often had lower levels of bacteria than the cheeses that had not left the aging room.
The defenders of raw milk cheeses stress the fact that the good lactic acid bacteria present in raw milk are a protective factor for their cheeses. The lactic bacteria can combat pathogens and protect the milk from further contamination—protecting the consumer from a possible food-borne illness, normally in the form of indigestion. If Staphylococcus is introduced to a pasteurized bath of warm milk, it will proliferate quickly and dangerously, but if introduced to a bath of warm raw milk, it will multiply ever more slowly, and there is the chance that it will be eliminated by the good bacteria present. By pasteurizing, or even semi-pasteurizing milk, we turn it into the ideal medium for dangerous bacteria.
So far, the cheese-makers have been able to continue making raw milk cheeses in France, and they are sharing their expertise to encourage and allow others to do the same. In 1990, FRECAP was instrumental in establishing the Carmejane Cheese Center located in le Chaffaut, in Haute Provence, to teach traditional raw milk cheese production. They now train nearly 200 people yearly in cheese-making, arrange professional internships, offer continuing education courses for cheese-makers to improve or diversify their activities, and arrange conferences to share information, and encourage international exchanges with Italy, Tunisia, Israel, Norway, Slovenia, Brazil and other countries.
However, while they are no longer as apprehensive about the EU, the spreading influence of the United States (and its very valuable luxury markets) does worry them and may require them to do battle all over again to defend their activity and professional integrity.
The battle is no longer being fought by the French cheese-makers alone. Traditional cheese-making spans all of Europe—though no other country has so many different kinds of cheese—and there is wide-spread interest in promoting locally and traditionally made products. In 2003, members from the EU countries England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy established the European Alliance for Artisan and Traditional Raw Milk Products (EAT). Their declared goal is to perpetuate and defend the age-old practice and practitioners of the safe preservation of milk through traditional raw milk cheese-making. They distribute information, encourage exchanges, respond to questions and help resolve technical or administrative problems and communicate positively (rather than defensively) about the benefits of raw milk cheese to journalists and consumers.
Recently completed, the National Guide to the Good Practices of Farm Cheese Production or, Le Guide National des Bonnes Pratiques en Production Fromagère Fermiére, is available to those who sign up for training courses organized by raw milk cheese technicians on a regional and national level in France. For more details, I strongly suggest contacting the Centre Fromager de Carmejane.
In an ideal world, instead of eliminating the glorious world of traditional cheeses, we would learn from them and preserve and disseminate their techniques to the cheese-making areas around the globe—even in the US. Provence is leading the way.
Madeleine Vedel is an American who has lived and worked in Provence for the past ten years. She and her husband Erick own the Cuisine et Tradition School of Provençale Cuisine, a cooking school and bed-and-breakfast in the city of Arles where they receive guests year-round. The cooking school teaches traditional Provencal cuisine with ingredients gathered from local artisans and producers from the region.