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"Liberty, equality, Camembert!" say top chefs

The Local, May 16

A group of top French chefs and winemakers have blasted a deal between Camembert cheese makers that they say will lead to the death of the much-loved and world famous fromage by turning it into a "paste with no taste".

A decade-long war over the famous Normandy Camembert cheese had at last been brought to an end in February.

Traditionally small producers were required to stick to strict production rules to be able to put the prestigious AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protegé) label on their cheese, including using only raw (unpasteurised) milk.

They had been at loggerheads with large manufacturers who weren't sticking to the same standards but were "misleading customers" about the quality of their cheese by putting a purposefully confusing "Made in Normandy" label on them.

However the truce saw the two sides of the long-running debate reach a kind of compromise by agreeing to the massive and controversial step of allowing a cheese to be called an AOP Normandy Camembert - a mark of quality meaning it has been made in a certain way in a certain region - if it is made with pasteurised milk in future rather than lait cru.

The decision was criticised at the time and it seems many still haven't come to terms with it. 

On Tuesday, newspaper Liberation published an open letter signed by some of the country's star chefs, including top female chef Anne-Sophie Pic and three-Michelin starred chef Emmanuel Renaut, who said, "The Normandy Camembert made with raw milk is being murdered", warning that if the move goes ahead it would become "a soft paste with no taste".

The letter went on to blast the agreement between the cheese manufacturers, calling it "a victory for the agri-food industry" and "a fatal loss for farmers and consumers".

And the text goes on to lambast the effect the agreement will have on France's reputation for producing quality products.

"Shame, scandal, sham... the words are not strong enough to denounce the deceit which France, creator of the AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protegé) system of appellations of origin ... will be accused of having committed if the French do not protest," the letter said.

"In just five years, the real Normandy Camembert will be a luxury product, reserved for insiders, while most consumers will have to be satisfied with a replacement manufactured according to industrial methods," it goes on, calling on President Emmanuel Macron and Agricultural Minister Stéphane Travert to step in.

"We demand a Camembert with raw milk for all! Let us help milk producers by aiming for quality with the aim of respecting our traditions! Liberty, equality, Camembert!" concludes the letter.

And the chefs aren't the first to take action against the truce. 

In April, French cheese association Fromages de Terroirs sent a complaint to the Paris prosecutor, targeting the main industrial producers for their "misleading commercial practice".

The association complained about big producers like Lactalis and RichMonts using the phrase "Made in Normandy" via their brands President, Lepetit, Lanquetot or Coeur de Lion when the cheeses have not been produced according to traditional methods.

"These companies thrive on the fame and quality of the products protected by the AOP and as a result place local and traditional producers in a situation of unfair competition, while misleading the consumer," said the complaint.

Traditionally, in order for producers to use the prestigious AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protegé) label on their cheese not only did the cheese have to be made with unpasteurized milk, 50 percent of it had to come from Normandy cows grazing in Normandy fields.

But big producers didn't like those restrictions and used pasteurized milk from any kind of cow. As long as the factory was in Normandy they could simply put the label "Made in Normandy" on the round box with the aim of confusing customers.

As part of the agreement, big producers made a kind of compromise by saying that 30 percent of the milk used to make the cheese comes from real Normandy cows grazing in the region and it looks like by 2021 there will be just one Camembert from Normandy - that is, if the chefs don't get their way.

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