The rigid world of French cheesemaking faces unleashed climate change | ET REALITY


Just past the manicured vineyards and country houses with their blue shutters and tiled roofs, the goats chew their way through a field of thigh-high plants, more typical of Sudan and India than the south of France.

It’s late September and it’s 81 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius), unusually warm for the season, which is becoming more common and, in fact, the point.

The goats have been purposely grazed on a specially planted sorghum plot, and are unwittingly participating in a study to see how drought-resistant crops will affect their milk.

More important is whether that milk still produces tasty Picodon: a 60-gram, hockey-puck-shaped cheese with notes of hazelnut and mushroom that is synonymous with the region.

The experiment is part of a fight by cheesemakers to see if they can adapt their methods within the strict rules that govern how the highest quality French cheeses are made, or if climate change requires those rules to be relaxed, a near heresy for many.

“We are studying all aspects of cheeseability,” said Philippe Thorey, following the large herd through the countryside at a government-funded experimental goat farm west of the town of Montélimar. “We have assembled a jury of experts who will test the cheese to make sure it follows all the rules. “They have around 20 taste criteria.”

That’s right: 20.

France takes cheese seriously. Ask someone like celebrated restaurant and food critic François-Régis Gaudry about cheese, and you’ll likely be nostalgic for your mother’s cheese plates, filled with mold-stained Roquefort from the south, a buttery Comté from the mountains of the east, and a creamy Camembert de Normandie, and how he would put it down and announce: “Now we will taste France.”

Gaudry defines cheese as a ritual step between a meal and a dessert and the embodiment of the country’s diverse terroirs: a French word that denotes particular landscapes, their climates and the local agricultural traditions that skillfully highlight their specific flavors.

“The history of French cheese is a love story between men, animals and the earth,” he said.

While former president Charles de Gaulle was said to complain about the difficulty of governing a country with 246 cheeses, Gaudry’s book – “Let’s Eat France” – puts the figure at 1,200.

Among all those cheeses there are 46 considered almost perfect expressions of that love story, or terroir, that carry the AOP label of “Appellation d’Origine Protégée” – “Protected Designation of Origin”.

To earn that label, widely considered a mark of quality (allowing the chosen cheese to be sold at a higher price), cheesemakers must follow elaborate rules developed locally over centuries. Those rules govern everything from the breeds and feeding of dairy animals to every stage of cheese production and aging.

The Picodon rules, for example, are 13 pages long.

None of them take climate change into account.

“The whole system was based on the fact that we had certain grains and hay available – all the rules were written with that in mind,” said Simon Bouchet, who works for the Picodon association. “But with climate change and droughts, all that has been called into question.”

An alarm sounded more than a year ago, after France sweated through the second hottest summer in a century. Pastures in much of the country turned brown and milking barns became stifling saunas.

More than half of the country’s designation of origin cheese associations have formally received permission from authorities to violate their rules.

The makers of a traditional cheese, whose guidelines require their cows to eat only mountain pastures for seven months, simply stopped making that cheese: there was too little grass to eat.

That forced a reckoning between many of the country’s AOP cheese manufacturers and their regulatory body, the National Institute of Origin and Quality. Its president, Carole Ly, considered that not only cheese was at stake, but also French identity and the deep-rooted “culture of sharing food.”

“These are products we love,” Ly said.

Since then, many of the AOPs and their members have begun to experiment with possible adaptations that do not break their traditional rules. Others have demanded the rules be changed in the face of hotter, drier summers. Others are conducting deeper debates about which parts of cheese traditions and rules are essential and which are adaptable.

“The question we ask ourselves today is how we define terroir: is it static or dynamic and evolving?” said Christophe Berthelot, coordinator of a project working with nine different cheese associations. “Will the changes be in line with cheese fundamentals?”

The Picodon association has 140 members, including goat breeders, cheese makers and those who are dedicated to both. Its official territory includes a relatively large area of ​​dry, scrubby hills in southern France, as well as lush grasslands on both sides of the Rhône River.

A movie in Earth Goat The Picodon museum presents the 36,000-year-old paintings of wild ibex discovered in the nearby Chauvet Cave as testimony to the long history of goat farming in the area, although the AOP’s official guidelines date back only four centuries, to 1600.

Picodon’s rules, first established in 1983, are testament to both France’s reputation for fast-paced bureaucracy and its love of tradition and, well, cheese.

Among them: farmers can use only four breeds of goats or crosses of them; All goat feed must come from the region and include at least 12 types of plants and no silage; milk cannot be pasteurized; and the cheese must be dried for a minimum of 24 hours at no higher than 23 degrees Celsius, or about 73 Fahrenheit, and must be aged for at least 12 days.

Some farmers say the rules regarding cold aging temperatures will become more challenging and costly to follow as summer temperatures rise. Many complain about the rule that prohibits imported feed.

The region, which was already hot and dry, has become hotter and drier, upsetting both the goats and their owners. While local farmers once kept them inside through August, many say they now move them into cooler barns all summer, digging early into the winter hay stock.

“Sometimes I’m scared,” said Marceline Peglion, 36, as she tended to the 60 alpine goats she and a partner bought four years ago as part of a Picodon cheese production farm. “Was it a good choice? Will it be worth anything in 10 or 15 years?

Other questions are more existential. “If the climate becomes that of Morocco, what really is terroir?” asked Mrs. Peglion.

He has moved up his hours, turning his goats out early before the sun becomes oppressive, and has stopped milking in the afternoon during the hottest months, when the milking barn feels intolerable.

The owners of the Serre goat farm in Ribes have adapted by building a huge barn that cost 300,000 euros, or almost $320,000, to dry crops during wet seasons.

“With climate change, we can grow more in winter than before because temperatures are higher,” says Sylvain Balmelle, 40, one of the owners. “We need to take advantage of that small advantage to make up for the loss.”

Some AOPs simply require a change in their rules, something that can take years. Others worry that this threatens to dilute the brand’s reputation, as well as perhaps the taste of its product.

“When we sell an AOP cheese, we also sell a promise around the taste of the cheese, but there is also the promise of the image of the landscape,” said Ronan Lasbleiz, an expert at the National Institute of Origin and Quality who works with Six PDO to address the climate change.

Will customers be less likely to order Picodon cheese if it is no longer associated with the goats that roam the bushes in summer, nibbling on alfalfa and wild mint?

Peglion is among those who wonder if the inflexible rules will hurt small farmers like her.

Others believe that AOP is the main reason why small cheese producers have continued to survive in the face of industrialized agriculture, and that it will also be a lifeline in tackling climate change.

“The AOP is a recognition of our history and our values,” said Hervé Barnier, a sixth-generation Picodon cheesemaker with 150 goats near Vesc. “It has saved at least one or two generations. Maybe this will allow some of us to continue this work.”

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed with reports.

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