Friday, 15 July 2011

Industrial cheese - what's wrong with it

There's cheese and there's cheese. In particular, there's real cheese, and industrial cheese.

Of course industrial cheese is cheaper. But I was surprised to find how much cheaper and nastier it can be, and how much tinkering goes on to produce regularised products for supermarket shelves.

For a start, the small cheese producer works with the milk that is produced each day. For Morbier, milk from morning and evening milkings was always kept separate, divided by a small layer of ash to keep the morning milk clean - that's the grey line in the middle that is characteristic of this cheese. The milk then generally goes straight into the cheesemaking process, as it is - it's the quality of the milk that dictates the taste and texture of the cheese. And that milk comes from a small area, possibly from a defined breed of cow, possibly only from summer pastures. All these factors dictate its character.

The industrial producer on the other hand can take milk from anywhere by the tankerload. The milk is heat treated, usually pasteurised, and can then be separated out into milk and cream. That enables the producer to select a particular fat content (as shown in a page about the Fromagerie de la Brie). It also irons out the character of the cheese, tending to make it less individual.

Some factories use chemical additives to prevent the milk going off - sodium nitrate and hydrogen peroxide are known to be used in some cheeses (though I am not clear whether these are allowed in France; chapter and verse from anyone knowledgeable would be welcome). Other chemicals are added to enable the production of low fat cheese; and artificial colourings are used to keep the colour of the cheese consistent. Artificial flavourings may also be used. So industrial cheese isn't just a larger scale version of artisanal or fermier cheese - it's an artificial product, no different from Cheesy Wotsits or Pot Noodles really.

Pasteurisation has been a particular battleground in France since the Camembert battle between modern industrial producers and the old guard. The old guard won that one - the authorities decided that to get its AOC, Camembert had to be made with raw milk.

Now then; price comparison. A good artisan or fermier cheese will cost somewhere between 2 and 5 times as much as an industrial cheese (that top end is for real rarities, and the occasional more expensive goat's cheese or very old Mimolette). It won't be as good. Is it worth making the economy?

How much do we spend on cheese every week? Fifteen euros perhaps, at most? So if we saved half of that, it would be seven euros a week. 364 euros a year. The cost of a decent long weekend away.

Actually, I think real cheese is worth that much. Although, perhaps, not to cook with; for that I do use industrial cheese.

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