Mythbuster: France has 258 varieties of cheese

In this regular column we look at the ‘truths’ that everyone ‘knows’ about France

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This is false

There is debate about the exact number General de Gaulle used when he asked “How do you govern a country with 258 varieties of cheese?” but it is a fine illustration of the complexity of la France profonde.

Whether it was 258, 300 or 365 does not blur the sense of identity people take from local cheese: made by local people, using local breeds and using skills passed down through generations. Cheese and wine help create a national French identity but they also pinpoint local differences or terroir – and at least 258, 300 or 365 of them.

So, it may be a surprise to find that France has just 45 varieties of AOP cheese... but it also totals an amazing 1,200 other cheeses made up of 40 different types, according to the dairy federation Cniel.

Surprisingly, with the great rise in the number of cheeses since de Gaulle spoke in 1962, cheeses are still disappearing from market; more than 50 have gone in the last 30 years.

The Association Fromages de Terroirs says it is due to “galloping standardisation” with just 7% of all cheeses still made with raw lait cru and nearly half of all AOC cheeses made with pasteurised milk. It decries a loss of taste and fears industrial cheeses will take over as they use pasteurised milk and are cheaper.

Take the example of Camembert, until this year only unpasteurised milk was allowed in ‘Camembert de Normandie AOP’ but dairy giants’ got round this by labelling their pasteurised version ‘Made in Normandy’.

Now the Inra standards body says pasteurised milk can also be used in AOP Camembert... so the cheaper version is at risk of killing off the half-dozen surviving artisan cheesemakers.