It's a David vs. Goliath showdown in the codified world of French cheesemaking. And in round one, an intrepid little collective has dealt a hefty blow to big industry to uphold standards for the country's iconic Camembert.
"We've won," said Francois Durand, as he lovingly ladled raw milk from his herd of 50 dairy cows into individual cheese moulds, scoffing at suggestions it was a health risk.
AdvertisementIn the minute village of Camembert itself, he is the last cheese-maker who still turns out the plump little discs that -- thanks to the raw milk -- can bear France's coveted "Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC)" label certifying origin and quality for foods and wines.
The 46-year-old sees his specialty as more a calling than a job, not surprisingly making him a major player in the country's Camembert wars .
"I started when I was 19," he told AFP at his typical half-timbered Normandy farmhouse nestled in the rolling hills next to the village, where he started making cheese in 1981.
"My parents had a dairy farm but didn't make cheese. It was our neighbours who were the Camembert makers and when they retired, I took over their business."
Today, he produces around 400 cheeses a day, each requiring at least three weeks to reach pungent maturity and that mark of Camembert excellence -- a slight yield to prodding fingers to see if the disc is "bien fait" or "well done".
In early March after months of wrangling, a group of experts set up to advise the French authorities ruled that Camembert sold with the AOC label must indeed be made with raw, not treated, milk.
A final ruling is pending, but most experts agree it will be a simple formality.
Last June, France's two biggest industrial dairy firms, Lactalis -- the world's second largest dairy processor -- and Isigny Cooperative, which together produced 80 percent of the prized AOC Camembert, pulled out of the AOC system after they were found to be using treated milk in cheese still labeled "AOC".
They argued there were health risks in using raw milk, then set about trying to change the rules so that "AOC" Camembert could be made with treated milk -- the latter being both less expensive and less complicated.
Durand and his fellow campaigners rubbish the big producers' health arguments, saying the danger of contracting food poisoning from raw-milk Camembert is "infinitesimal".
The battle stakes are high, since some countries including the United States ban imports of raw-milk Camembert.
Legend holds this "soft" cheese was invented in 1790 by a villager called Marie Harel, given the recipe by a priest she sheltered from angry guards hunting down clergymen who refused to swear allegiance to the newly created Republic after the 1789 French Revolution.
Since then, it has become arguable France's best known dairy product -- at home and abroad, no small achievement in a nation where the late, legendary president Charles de Gaulle once asked, "How can you govern a country that has 246 cheeses?"
But the cheese giants have not given up the fight.
Within weeks of the experts' ruling, Lactalis issued a statement saying that dangerous bacteria was found in a batch of AOC Camembert produced by Reaux, a small competitor that just happened to be one of its biggest critics.
Reaux riposted, saying there was no evidence of contamination and backed this up with results by an independent laboratory that gave its products the all clear.
For one cheese expert who asked not to be named, the big firms' strategy has backfired.
"So far all of the reactions seem to have gone against Lactalis. If the public continues to support untreated milk then I can see little problem for the small producers," he said.
And for the epicurean, "you are talking about two totally different products," Durand said. "In a Camembert made with raw milk you keep all of the milk's natural organisms and that's what gives the cheese its unique flavour."
Clients who manage to find Durand's farm seem to agree.
"Long live real Camembert," read a guest book comment with signatories from as far afield as Brazil, the Czech Republic, New Zealand and the United States.
"Thank you for saving this real cheese," read another.
Visitors seeking this village of 216 souls must wind along several kilometres (miles) of narrow lanes through fields, woods and mistletoe-laden apple orchards.
This cheese-lovers Mecca is very much a "blink and you'll miss it" kind of place, announced only by the small, characteristic red-bordered, black and white sign at the entrance to any French village.
Camembert has one road, one church and a town hall. The tourist office doubles as a "maison du fromage" or "house of cheese", with, what else, its very own "cheese bar".