Artisanal French Cheeses in Danger of Extinction

13 August, 2020

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But over in Paris, the second-generation owner of Alléosse, Philippe Alléosse, is trying his level best to resist this ill-fate, one wheel of artisan-made cheese at a time. 

The first master cheese maker and refiner to be accredited in France, Alléosse buys unpasteurised milk cheeses from small farmers (locally and elsewhere in Europe), as well as from the Rungis International Market, and ripens them in his network of four underground caves, measuring some 250 square metres, in the 17th arrondisement. Once the cheeses he purveys are deemed matured, they are either sold in the Alléosse fromagerie in Rue Poncelet, or delivered directly to chefs.

“The role of an affineur requires an intimate knowledge of the cheeses and their life rhythm,” says Alléosse, who was conferred the distinction of Maitre Artisan Affinateur (Master in artisan affineur) in 2006. “Our methods and techniques are artisanal and entirely manual - the goal being authenticity and the flavour of the cheeses for the consumers.” 

An affineur “valorises the organoleptic quality of cheeses by multiple manipulations”, he says, controlling each step of the maturation process to mould the cheese to the way he wants it, be it soft, creamy, tight, half-dry or dry.

In Paris, between 200 to 300 types of artisan-made, mostly AOP, cheeses weighing several tonnes are being ripened in his caves every year. Depending on cheese varieties, the caves are put into four different groups, namely: Cave à croûtes lavées  for washed rind cheeses such as Reblochon and Epoisses; Cave aux chèvres for goat’s milk cheeses; Cave à pâte molle à croûtes fleuries for soft cheeses with bloomy rind such as Camembert and Brie; and lastly Cave à tomme pâtes cuites/pressees for pressed or cooked hard cheeses like Comte and Pecorino.

For Camembert de Normandie, one of his best selling cheeses, Alléosse says he still buys the AOP cheese from the same small producer in Normandy as he has over the past three decades. “Depending on what the chef is looking for, we age the Camembert de Normandie untouched for between 10 days to three weeks,” he says, adding that he never sells the soft cheese white, “always yellow”.

Alléosse also makes regular trips to visit the Camembert producer in Normandy to help fine-tune the Camembert‘s texture and flavour so that it is “softer and creamier without being overpowering”.

“As an affineur, we cannot simply support a category of cheese, AOP or not,” Alléose says, further explaining that some small-scale cheese makers who make unique cheeses like Bethmale Des Pyrenees may not want to be constrained by the specifications of AOP certification. As we speak, plans are afoot for the passionate affineur to open a bigger cheese maturation cellar in Brittany, so that he can be “closer to the producers”.

While working tirelessly on the supply side to keep the tradition of artisan cheese-making alive, Alléosse emphasises that consumers need to be vigilant about what they are buying and who they buy cheeses from. With demand sustaining supply and vice versa, perhaps artisanal French cheeses will not meet their gloomy destiny anytime soon?

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