Cheese-loving France reels as mozzarella catches camembert

Saint-Hilaire-de-Briouze (France) (AFP) – It's a trend -- some would say a threat -- that touches a pungent symbol of French culinary pride: Sales of camembert, the Normandy speciality that has long graced cheese platters, are set to be eclipsed by an import, Italian mozzarella.


The two are not exactly rivals, the first savoured on its own, while the latter is used mainly in salads, pizzas and pasta dishes.

But camembert's fading popularity is forcing France to recognise that its cheese tastes and traditions are changing.

"Camembert is suffering because it's considered old-fashioned and lower class, while mozza has caught on with young people," said Mike Bija, who runs La Cremiere du 17, a stylish cheese bar in a cool corner of Paris.

Alongside glasses of wine, he offers a traditional raw-milk camembert, but also a milder version made from Italian buffalo milk -- what once would have been a heresy.

"Camembert is an adventure, it's a demanding, strong-flavoured product," said his partner, Sakina Merazga.

Sales of the white discs slumped by 11 percent in the five years to 2020, to 48,000 tons a year -- the only decline among the top five French cheeses, according to the agriculture ministry.

Mozzarella sales meanwhile jumped 62 percent over the period, to nearly 38 thousand tons, and show no sign of slowing.

"Mozzarella sales are soon going to surpass those of camembert," the consumer research firm Nielsen wrote in a recent study.

Modern times

Weighing heavily is the lost tradition of laying out an array of cheeses at the end of every meal, something now reserved for dinner parties or celebrations.

"My parents used to eat it after both lunch and dinner," said Emilie Flechard, whose family owns Fromagerie Gillot, France's largest independent maker of raw-milk camembert, in the village of Saint-Hilaire-de-Briouze.

"Myself, I never eat cheese after a meal, except when I invite guests over," she said, as employees ladled curd into molds, a process repeated at strict intervals five times over a day to make each cheese.

The shift also reflects changing shopping habits, with most people now buying their cheese in supermarkets that mainly stock mass-market brands.

A quaint neighbourhood cheese shop, ageing pricier products in-house, is largely a thing of the past -- only three percent of French cheese sales are at speciality shops or market stalls, the ministry says.

Families, meanwhile, are getting smaller, and many don't want to buy a whole camembert that will ripen quickly in the fridge once cut open.

There are two types of camembert, telling two very different stories.

Quantity vs quality

The vast majority of camembert is made with pasteurised milk by dairy giants like Lactalis, the market behemoth with brands such as President.

It was one of the first mass-produced, widely accessible French cheeses, and as a result the emblem of France's wine-bread-cheese triptych.

But because of its milder if not bland flavour and a texture at times described as chalky or gooey, the French have begun to turn up their noses.

"In a way, camembert is like the baguette, which was highly industrialised in the second half of the 20th century, becoming a bland, tasteless bread," said Loic Bienassis, a researcher at the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food in Tours, France.

The decline in sales, part, "is the price of its success," he said.

But demand is brisk for the more flavoursome raw-milk originals made by Gillot and around a dozen other producers under the strict Camembert de Normandie appellation (AOP).

Sales of AOP camembert, which requires milk from grass-fed Normande cows, make up less than 10 percent of the overall market, but they are rising fast -- over 24 million were sold in 2020, a 20 percent jump over the past six years.

Gillot is investing 25 million euros ($29 million) to upgrade its site to meet demand, and now also sells smaller camemberts targeting today's smaller households.

"We believe in a future of more higher-quality products. People are going to eat less, but better," Flechard said.