Every Thursday morning at Washington Dulles Airport, a French government Airbus disgorges a metal freight container under diplomatic seal. Bypassing US customs inspection, it is transported directly to the French Embassy compound in Georgetown. At midday, elite French diplomats gather to watch as the precious content is unsealed.
Along with the diplomatic papers, direct from the Quai d’Orsay, cheese is delivered weekly for French officials in the United States capital, a country where unpasteurised cheese is cruelly banned. Embassy staff put in their orders a week in advance and get delivered individual baskets of Comte, Reblochon and the soft, smoky goat’s cheese of Sainte-Maure de Touraine. And duty-free Bordeaux, to wash it down. À table!
France claims to be exceptional and so does its cheese, a quintessential emblem of national identity. Now though, in the latest blow to the €35 billion French cheese sector, a biological crisis is threatening two protected cheeses. Camembert from Normandy and the practically indistinguishable Brie from Meaux in the Marne are both said to be potentially vulnerable to extinction. Moreover the crisis facing these iconic cheeses seems to be entirely self-inflicted.
The comic element of this tragedy is that white supremacy is to blame for this crisis and the solution is more diversity, at least in the fungus department. Camembert and Brie are snowy white, the colour of powdered sugar, apparently because consumers like it this way. But how does it become so white? The bleached finish of these supermarket cheeses is due to the use of the fungus penicillium camemberti, a living composition of tiny bacterial creatures. Injected into the milk curd produced by fat cows, this produces the uniform, chalky whiteness.
Camemberti is remarkable but it has been abused. The fungus is weakening and is menaced with exhaustion and inefficacy, and with it Camembert and Brie, says the CNRS, the country’s leading scientific research centre. The