Sunday, 22 May 2011

AOP – a double-edged sword?

"What there’s a good cheese? And it hasn’t got an AOP? Quick give it one fast! Of course we always made it, it’s our terroir, our history, it originated here…”

When it comes to protection, the French are on their game (they’d have to be with their reputation as lovers…). They now hold 46 AOPs for cheese, of which 19 have been awarded since 1990. If they can protect it, they will. And they’ve got a reason to, after losing great names like Brie and Camembert to the world. (Although Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun and Camembert de Normandie are now protected).

AOP protects the cheese origin, history, traditional methods, and it’s relation to the natural geography and ‘terroir’; and also help market small farmers. Sounds good. The AOP ‘police’ can control many quality factors before they will award a label, plaque or engraved straw to grace any cheese. In some cases they protect traditions to the letter – for example Beaufort d’Alpage must be made 2000m up in the mountains, and produce their own rennet and culture, and Salers Traditional must be made with the milk from the ubiquitous but unproductive Salers cow (by Darwin’s theory it should have been extinct years ago!).

The level of protection varies massively: at its lowest it seems like just basic geographical limits, but higher levels involve stringent recipes (sometimes to the letter), some must be GMO free, others not, some say it has to be pasteurised, many don’t (you can’t find an unpasteurised Bleu de Causses; and you’ll struggle to find unpasteurised versions of Bleu d’Auvergne, Fourme D’Ambert, Ossau Iraty, Epoisses, Chabichou, Langres, Chaource, Mariolles and Pont l’Eveque).

Award of an AOP can give power to producers (you can only buy an Epoisses from four producers) and often allow them to charge a higher price. Quality can also suffer, as a product sells on the AOP name and producers begin to do just what is necessary. The product will often sell anyway thanks to the reputation of an AOP; this has led to a large variance in quality within each cheese AOP.

The recognition of AOP has in some cases led to big dairies controlling the market, pushing small producers out, or making it more cost effective for farmers to concentrate on producing the milk. This has led to a loss of farmhouse dairies: farm production is less than 8% of AOP cheeses

AOPs can also stifle innovation and change, as rigid rules hold back improvements, the ability to adapt and develop.

Others have become regimented as uniformity has swept across the board. The men in the black suits, the AOP ‘police’ and experts come from Paris to make farmers follow a recipe, often using the same cultures and rennet. In doing this they lose the nuances between recipes and farms. And after the cheese is produced the products often have to stay in their region of production for affinage. This means many experienced affineurs and cheese-mongers may receive the product too late to have a major affect on the quality and maturing of the product.

So where do I stand? AOP does protect history, the link with the terroir, traditions and origins, all great principles: no matter how close to Gouda it is, Gouda made in China shouldn’t be called Dutch Gouda (or perhaps even Gouda).

Yet where protection exists there is massive variance within it, good and bad. I’ve read in many a book “look for AOP”. My advice is never buy a cheese by any symbol or a name. Look for a great cheesemaker or a great cheesemonger, and a great taste. If you can’t taste it, walk away.

The Positives

Beaufort d’Alpage
The AOP ensures Beaufort d’Alpage (d’Alpage is the key bit!) is made to very traditional methods: one herd kept above 1500m (at Alpage in the mountains), only made in summer, the cows are never fed on silage, the cheese has to be made everyday with no holding or no chilling of milk, rennet and starters are homemade on the farm, traditional copper cauldrons are used and the cheese is hand dipped and kept in wooden moulds, all from a breed of cows which produce ideal milk for cheese. These factors are a like a wish list for making the best cheese, but are rarely, if ever, found elsewhere. Enforcing and protecting them by the AOP has kept the practices that would have fallen by the wayside (for example, I don’t know of anyone else who makes their own rennet). It makes each chalet that produces Beaufort d’Alpage truly unique and linked to the terroir.

Salers Traditional
With similar protection to Beaufort (made at summer pasture in alp age, with no silage, the use of wood and traditional methods) but also the enforced use of the Salers cow (which is what makes it Salers Traditional, not just regular Salers). The Salers cow gives amazingly rich milk. Yet each cow only gives 4 litres per day (compared to 30-40 litres from Holstein Friesians); they also will only give milk when their child is present (see Blog 8).

With similar stringent controls as the other two, this cheese was awarded an AOP in 2002. Chevrotin was on the road to extinction; very few knew or were buying the cheese. The granting of an AOP halted and reversed the decline; the last few farmers gained from this nationwide recognition.

The Negatives

The success of Manchego has meant most farmers in the AOP region have now turned to producing this cheese, or can send their milk to big dairies for a good price. The small individual, interesting and unique farmhouse cheeses from this region are no longer made. Manchego is a more successful product and has pushed them out of the market.

I spoke to a Salers producer who would love to partially skim the milk a little, at the end of the summer season (the end of the cows lactation and last of the summer grass means her milk is too fatty and this produces off flavours in the cheese). Yet the AOP does not allowed skimming the milk. The large Salers producers also gain from the handmade traditional methods here: much of the AOP Salers marketing shows these small farmhouses and their traditional methods; but the industrial diaries that gain from the association are pushing smaller producers out of the market on price.

Up until 1989 Stilton could be unpasteurised. Then there was a scare with Listeria (it was later proved no relation to the cheese), and the last unpasteurised producer (Colston Bassett) was forced to pasteurise. The decree was passed in 1992 that Stilton HAD to be pasteurised, so now a producer (Stichelton) cannot call his cheese Stilton because it is unpasteurised.

Until the 70s Roquefort could be made anywhere in France, using milk from anywhere (as long as it was Lacune breed). So much for a product of the terroir; all it had to be, really, was aged in the caves for 14 days (and a further 2½ months in the region). Due to the fame of Roquefort, seven massive producers own all the production and have become a bit like a cartel, controlling the market. Also, as all the Roquefort made can be sold, they have less interest in quality (which is often why Roquefort is wet – to remove the water equals extra work and weight loss).

No comments:

Post a Comment