Monday, 25 April 2011

Who do you think brought you the AOCs, the IGPs, the PDOs and Italy’s DOC?

"The failure to protect Cheddar is perhaps the greatest mistake of trademark history” (Towt, 1911). Only 36 years after the very first trademark (Bass’ Red Triangle on their beer kegs), Cheddar makers had sprung up everywhere. The empire had grown; farmers, convicts and cheesemakers spread to the promised lands, taking with them their techniques and traditions of cheesemaking. And with them, the names of the methods and towns they originated from. Canadian Red Leicester, New Zealand Cheddar and Australian Cheshire would soon grace our shores, whilst the town of Cheddar even lost its last cheese producer.

Yet, the small town of Cheddar in Somerset lives on: it has regained a cheesemaker within the town; even now maturing his cheese in the famous Cheddar Gorge. But the name Cheddar can never again be specific to just one area, as it is ruled to have become generic. The same is true of Lancashire, Cheshire, Red Leicester, Brie, Camembert…

Luckily the UK managed to protect Stilton (retrospectively in 1966) with a trademark, so it can only be made to a traditional recipe within the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.

This trademark now is enveloped in part of the EU protection system: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP): a red circle with a gold border and stars, (the two acronyms mean the same thing). This designation has now taken precedence over existing systems throughout Europe: the AOC of France; the DOCs of Portugal and Italy, the DO Spain and the old PDO (same symbol in blue). Although you may still find these mentioned, they are being phased out and replaced by the universal PDO symbol.

The new legislation also saw the creation of the less strict IGP symbol (guarantees the product came from an area) and the TSG symbol (guarantees the product is made to traditional methods).

The PDO structure is based on that of the Appellation d’Origine Controlée of France. France first protected its cheese in 1407, when Charles VI stated the protection of Roquefort was necessary. And in 1666 the name Roquefort became legally bound only be used on cheeses of that region that had been aged in the famous caves of Combalou.

This AOC structure was designed to protect traditions and regional foods, so that foods and wines remain with their regional association, methods, local ingredients and influences. For example an Epoisses is a testament to that area – not merely a method of manufacture (as that can be reproduced anywhere), not even local raw materials, but climate, soil, geography, treatments, animal breeds, harvesting times and local environmental factors (such as the natural moulds in Roquefort’s Combalou caves). This is all summed up in the French word ‘terroir’.

However do be wary: PDO DOES NOT guarantee quality. On the basic level it just guarantees the product is produced to a basic way in a certain area (some PDOs are very strict, others very lenient). Some people choose a PDO or AOC cheese trusting it will be a great cheese; this is a mistake because there is massive variance between the products within this protection (often with the same name). I do not think of the PDO as an indicator of quality, just as an indicator of where the product will have been produced and to what style.

The relative merits and shortcomings of PDO are discussed in my next blog.

EU Protection Symbols and Details:

The PDO legislation applies throughout EU, but not to other countries. Many other countries do, however, agree to uphold the protection of many of these names (but not on all products).

Protected Designation of Origin (PDO/AOP)

Open to products which are produced, processed and prepared within a particular geographical area, and with features and characteristics which must be due to the geographical area, e.g. Stilton, Roquefort, Comté.

Protected Geographical Indication (PGI/IGP)

Open to products, which must be produced or processed or prepared within the geographical area and have a reputation, features or certain qualities attributable to that area. Not as strictly controlled or regulated as PDO, and generally not as recognized, e.g. Tomme de Savoie.

Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG/STG)

Open to products which are traditional or have customary names and have a set of features which distinguish them from other similar products. These features must not be due to the geographical area the product is produced in, nor entirely based on technical advances in the method of production. This protects tradition rather than origin (and is in fact rarely applied for or used; although Mozzerella TSG does guarantee that it’s made in a traditional style).

Note the Swiss conform to these laws and have their own, similar symbols:

Sunday, 17 April 2011

What time? St Nectaire.

When Guerin the farmer expressed doubt that I could get in up time to make it to his farm to watch them making cheese, I knew I would make it. He even re-enforced it when he exclaimed that he has to get up that early everyday. So a 2.30 am start on a Saturday had to be achieved; especially hard, as Friday is my mountain cheese-flipping day (the 40kg pieces of Beaufort, Comté and Gruyère). Groggy-eyed I drove all the way to a little village hidden between the lakes and extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne. I arrived just in time to watch the milking finish. I was there to watch St Nectaire being made, one of the most popular AOC (Appelation D’Origine Controllée) cheeses in France (close on the heels of Comté).

Cheeses have been made there since Roman times, and the cheese itself has been renowned since the Middle Ages. Produced in the winter when there wasn’t enough milk to make the big Cantal and Salers cheeses, and aged on local rye straw, it picked up it’s name rather strangely – not from the holy Saint Nectaire (there isn’t one!) – but because of Henry de Senectère, a local baron in favour with French king Louis XIV (he won some battles or something). Henry de Senectère famously promoted and pushed the cheeses of his region, so much so that Louis XIV regularly demanded cheeses from “Senectère”, and the name gradually transformed into St Nectaire!

Poor production techniques, and a location a long way from major cities meant the cheese fell out of fashion in the 18th Century (they even began using the local milk to make Gruyère copies instead). Later, however, when the young peasants enrolled to fight in the Napoleonic wars, they probably didn’t do so to improve their cheese production skills. But that’s what happened, and after marching and fighting (not too much – they were French after all) through Holland, they returned, with their heads full of the new ideas they’d seen. Consequently the quality of the cheese improved massively; so much so a committee quickly returned to Holland to see if it could learn even more.

St Nectaire’s production methods now honed, it re-found its fame as a national treasure and farmhouse production leapt. An AOC was awarded (one of the earliest AOCs and the first one to receive a special designation for farm production) so you would think that this cheese is well protected.

Yet good St Nectaire is increasingly hard to find, even with over 250 farms still making St Nectaire Fermier. The quality is widely variable and the good ones rarely leave the region!

This is made worse by the massive amount of St Nectaire Laitier production - a very different cheese from the Fermier: it is made in very sterilised conditions, often with pasteurised milk, (with none of the wild moulds that populate the milk). Without aging in the natural caves, the rind doesn’t develop like that of Fermier, and the cheese often tastes of nothing, or milk at best. Laitier is often the St Nectaire you’ll find in supermarkets around France. It looks clean – an orange even rind with it’s square green plaque. By contrast the Fermier version (with an oval green plaque) is damn unattractive – a potholed, dusty, green-grey rind, mottled with brown, orange and yellow. Yet, as the ugly duckling of the cheese world, it shouldn’t be judged on appearance: when you find a good one, it’ll have flavours and aromas that are complex, nutty, fruity, earthy and musty. A real rustic cheese – look at the contrast in the picture above left.

These Fermier cheeses are made straight after each milking, each day, by small farms in the isolated villages, using unpasteurised milk from their herd. My early start meant I’d just caught the milking. Rennet was added and we waited, patiently staring at the vat full of milk from the 90 cows. It set relatively fast, the curds were cut and whey was drained. Then the moulding process began: we stuffed the curds into moulds, then the cheese was then gently pressed, wrapped in cloth, salted, and given it it’s official plaque “St Nectaire Fermier”. The 55 cheeses we made that day were pressed for 12 hours, then passed through a drying room before ending up in their caves.

Not many farmers affine St Nectaire themselves, instead passing it onto the many affineurs in the area. Guerin is one exception. With the help of Hervé Mons they built a small facility to start the process off. This means the cheeses can take on a bit of local character for a month before they arrive at Hervé’s caves. It would be me that then finished the process off – another month or two of turning, brushing and wiping until Hervé decides it’s ready.

In the humid natural caves the cheeses are washed three times before being left to take on the natural moulds of the region – including the infamous Mucor, hated by other cheese makers. These unique conditions produce a cheese which is a little unique – gently pressed and populated by natural moulds, yet soft supple and creamy inside.

Yet, as I said, even to find a good St Nectaire Fermier is difficult*, and if you find one like this – you might want to keep it to yourself. There aren’t that many to go around.

Read more about AOC in

my next blog.

* The difficulty in finding good St Nectaire is because of the massive variance in each production. This AOC protection may have been one of the earliest, but always be wary of the sign AOC: the St Nectaire’s documentation stipulates it must be … well not much really. A basic recipe and geographic area. That’s about all. You can milk any breed of cow, any altitude, feed them on whatever you want (top quality pasture versus hay, even silage), use unpasteurised or pasteurised milk. Even the recipe controls and stipulates very few conditions.

This leads to a massive variance – imagine a prime cow (i.e. Abondance / Salers) grazing high on the finest mountain pasture in the Auvergne mountains, producing milk which is used unpasteurised, naturally fermented, then made into cheese by a farmer who has spent years and lots of money (invested in his diary, education and consultancy) to produce a top quality product.

Now think of an intensive production system, using a cow breed that gives lots of milk (yet poor quality), such as Friesian, fed only on hay and silage, kept indoors all year. Then the milk is pasteurised, and much less care given to the production and affinage.

Unfortunately, the difference in the price between the two products is going not going to be much, with one being much easier life but giving a much better profit margin. AOC can sometimes be nothing more than basic protection, not influencing quality – although the opposite is also true in some areas, for example Beaufort – more to come on AOC in my next blog.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Le Premier Affinage

I’m doing it! I’m having a shot at it myself! Some of you may know that I’ve made cheese before myself, using drainpipes, clamps and pans. Naturally I had a shot at ageing them. Yet the outcome was dubious at best – you could put windows out with my brie, my blue was more bitter than a pint of stout, and my goats cheese so runny it would come over to meet you. In fact, my only real success was with my home-grown cheddar. And I think that was because I left it with a friend to look after! Looking back, I now think I can identify where I went wrong with each cheese. So I decided it was time to have a shot at ageing a cheese at my home in France. Thankfully I have a cellar, and so it began. I chose Tarentais to start with because I could get hold of it fresh, it’s small (so mistakes won’t be too expensive) and quite forgiving – important, as my cellar is a little warmer and drier than is ideal. I wanted to age it differently from Mons, so tried a few alternative techniques to see how it turned out. And here it is. Le Premier Affinage Tout Seul (First Ageing On My Own). Well the geotrichium I was trying to cultivate died after the first week, but I battled on! It dried up a little more than I wanted, and, tasting it after 5 weeks, it was ok in texture and taste, very different to Mons. An interesting experiment, but I’ve still a bit to learn maybe…

It's been a while

Sorry for the dry spell in blogs up here; but i've been busy slicing and dicing Stilton in my new job at The Fine Cheese Co., Bath. However I have kept up-to-date at So there is some there to catch up on!