Chefs sign letter in defence of Camembert amid AOP row

High-end chefs, including Anne-Sophie Pic and Christophe Bacquié, have signed an open letter in defence of AOP Normandy Camembert cheese, to stop it “becoming an ersatz, vulgar and tasteless soft paste”.

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Around 30 Michelin-starred chefs have signed an open letter in defence of the “most popular of French cheeses, that was born in the limbo of the French revolution and in the heart of Normandy”.

Written by Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president of cheese association Fromages de Terroirs, the letter was published this week by news source Libération.

It explains the chefs’ fears that the quality of the traditional "Camembert de Normandie" cheese is at risk of becoming lost due to pasteurisation and other inauthentic processes.

The letter reads: “Shame, scandal, imposition... words are not strong enough to denounce the misdeeds that France, creator of the system of ‘appellations of origin’ that it wields everywhere as a role model, will be accused of having committed if the French do not protest.”

“In just five years, the “real Camembert de Normandie” will be a luxury product, reserved for the initiated, while the mass of consumers will have to be satisfied with an ersatz manufactured according to industrial methods.”

The letter comes three months after a decision by a quality commission l'Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité (INAO) over an ongoing debate over the difference between the labels “Camembert de Normandie”, and “fabriqué en Normandie”.

Up until now, “Camembert de Normandie” has had protected AOP (l'Appellation d'origine protégée) status, and has been required to adhere to strict guidelines to receive the title.

These include using raw milk from Normandy cows, and making it in five layers in a specific, rounded shape between 10.5cm and 11.5cm in diameter, that is also three centimetres thick, and weighs at least 250g.

Cheese that is labelled “fabriqué en Normandie” (made in Normandy) has, until now, only needed to be finished in a factory located in Normandy, regardless of the origins of the milk or the manufacturing process.

However, from 2021, it has been agreed that cheese that is “fabriqué en Normandie” will be permitted to use the label “Camembert de Normandie”, as long as it pays greater attention to the standards usually demanded for the AOP label, including new conditions for Normandy-based cows, feeding practices, and the making of the cheese itself.

As a result, all such cheeses - as long as they reach the new minimum guidelines - will be allowed to call themselves “Camembert de Normandie” from 2021 onwards.

This, supporters say, will make it much easier for shoppers and consumers, and end the long-running argument between the “Camembert de Normandie” and “fabriqué en Normandie” camps.

The real, raw milk “Camembert de Normandie AOP” - of which just 5,500 tonnes is made every year, compared to 60,000 tonnes of the “fabriqué” variety - will now need to be labelled “véritable Camembert de Normandie” (the REAL Camembert de Normandie).

It will also have even more standards applied to it, meaning that “véritable Camembert de Normandie” cheese will likely cost €5 to €7 per piece, according to Ludovic Bisot, Meilleur ouvrier de France (MOF) 2015, owner of online cheese shop Tout un Fromage, based in Rambouillet (Yvelines, Île-de-France), and supporter of the new measures.

Yet, proponents of the authentic “Camembert de Normandie AOP” - and critics of the new agreement - suggest that this 2020 ruling will dilute the quality of the cheese’s reputation among consumers.

They say it risks less-than-authentic, low-quality cheese being wrongly considered as the “real thing”.

Now, this group of Michelin-starred chefs is calling on President Emmanuel Macron and the minister for Agriculture, Stéphane Travert, to step in to stop the dilution of the Camembert name.

The letter concludes: “Let us reclaim Camembert, made with raw milk, for everyone! Let us help dairy farmers by maintaining respect for our traditions! Liberty, equality, Camembert!”

The Fromages de Terroirs association has also lodged a complaint against the new rules, saying that they will allow “commercial trickery” and “imprecise use of the AOP label”.

It is particularly against the cheeses produced by the manufacturing giants Lactalis and RichesMonts - and their brands Président, Lepetit, Lanquetot and Coeur de Lion - saying that they should not be able to claim their products as authentic because they do not reach “AOP” standard.

Eric Morain, lawyer for Fromages de Terroirs, said that the changes were an “illustration of the fallibility of the AOP, which was once a very beautiful idea, and is now being pulled down to the lowest common denominator”.

And, despite his support of the 2021 law change, MOF Mr Bisot accepted that confusion still exists amongst consumers.

This is largely due to the word “camembert” having spread internationally to the point where it is no longer able to be used in a specific or exclusive national “appellation”, he explained.

“In the USA, you can find things called “camembert”, packed in boxes, and made with milk that is anything but from Normandy,” he said.

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