Europe

The Rigid World of French Cheesemaking Meets Unbound Climate Change

Just past the neat vineyards and country houses with their blue shutters and tile roofs, goats munch their way through a field of thigh-high plants more typical to Sudan and India than Southern France.

It is late September, and 81 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) — unseasonably warm, which is increasingly common and in fact the whole point.

The goats have purposefully been put out to graze on a specially planted patch of sorghum, the unwitting participants in a study to see how drought-resistant crops will affect their milk.

More important is whether that milk still renders a tasty Picodon — a 60-gram, hockey puck-shaped cheese with notes of hazelnut and mushroom that is synonymous with the region.

The experiment is part of a scramble by cheesemakers to see if they can adapt their methods within the strict rules governing how the highest-quality French cheeses are made, or whether climate change necessitates that those rules loosen, a near heresy for many.

“We are studying all the aspects of cheesability,” said Philippe Thorey, trailing the large herd through the field at a government-funded experimental goat farm west of the town of Montélimar. “We’ve assembled a jury of experts that will taste test the cheese to make sure it follows all the rules. They have about 20 criteria of taste.”

That’s right: 20.

The village of Rochebaudin in the heart of Picodon-making territory in Ardèche, in Southern France.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

France takes cheese seriously. Ask someone like celebrated food and restaurant critic François-Régis Gaudry about cheese, and he’s likely to grow nostalgic about his mother’s cheese plates, filled with mold-dotted Roquefort from the south, a buttery Comté from the eastern mountains and a northern creamy Camembert de Normandie, and how she would set it down and announce, “Now, we will taste France.”

Mr. Gaudry defines cheese as a ritualistic passage between a meal and dessert and the embodiment of the country’s diverse terroirs — a French word denoting particular landscapes, their climates and the local farming traditions that deftly tease out their specific flavors.

“The history of French cheese is a love story between men, animals and the earth,” he said.

While former President Charles de Gaulle was said to have grumbled over the difficulty of governing a country with 246 cheeses, Mr. Gaudry’s book — “Let’s Eat France” — puts the number at 1,200.

Among all of those cheeses are 46 deemed as near-perfect expressions of that love story, or terroir, carrying the label AOP for “Appellation d’Origine Protégée” — “Protected Designation of Origin.”

To get that label, widely considered a mark of quality — one that allows chosen cheese to be sold at a higher price — cheesemakers must follow elaborate rules developed locally over centuries. Those rules govern everything from the breeds and feed of milking animals, through each stage of the cheese production and aging.

Christian Moyersoen, manager of Les Fromagers Fermiers du Peytot, in Montélimar.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

The rules for the Picodon, for example, run for 13 pages.

None of them takes into account climate change.

“The whole system was built on the fact that we had certain cereals and hay available — all the rules were written with that in mind,” said Simon Bouchet who works for the Picodon association. “But with climate change and droughts, all that has been called into question.”

An alarm was sounded over a year ago, after France sweated through the second hottest summer in a century. Pasture grass across much of the country turned brown, and milking barns became stifling saunas.

More than half of the country’s AOP cheese associations formally received permission from authorities to break their rules.

The makers of one traditional cheese, whose guidelines require their cows eat only from mountain pastures during seven months, simply stopped making that cheese — there was so little grass to eat.

That forced a reckoning among many of the country’s AOP cheese makers and their regulatory body, the National Institute of Origin and Quality. Its president, Carole Ly, deemed that not just cheese was at stake, but French identity and the deep-rooted “culture of sharing food.”

“These are products that we love,” Ms. Ly said.

A cheese stall at a market in Privas, France.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Since then, many of the AOPs and their members have begun experimenting with possible adaptations that don’t break their traditional rules. Others have demanded the rules change in the face of hotter and drier summers. Some others are conducting deeper discussions about what parts of the cheese’s traditions and rules are essential, and which are adaptable.

“The question we are asking today, is how do we define terroir — is it static or is it dynamic and evolving?” said Christophe Berthelot, the coordinator of a project working with nine different cheese associations. “Will the changes be in line with the fundamentals of the cheese?”

There are 140 members of the Picodon association, including goat farmers, cheesemakers and those who do both. Their official territory includes a relatively large area of the scrubby dry hills of southern France, as well as the lush pastureland along either side of the Rhône River.

A movie in the Terra Cabra Picodon museum presents the 36,000-year-old paintings of wild ibex discovered in the nearby Chauvet cave as testament to the long history of goat farming in the area, though the official AOP guidelines reach back only four centuries, to 1600.

The 36,000-year-old paintings of wild ibex discovered in the Chauvet cave.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

The Picodon rules, set first in 1983, are testament to both France’s reputation for dizzying bureaucracy and its love of tradition and, well, cheese.

Among them: Farmers can use only four breeds of goats or crossbreeds of them; all of the goats’ food must come from within the region and must include at least 12 kinds of plants and no silage; the milk cannot be pasteurized;and the cheese must be dried for a minimum of 24 hours at no hotter than 23 degrees Celsius, or about 73 Fahrenheit, and must be aged for at least 12 days.

Some farmers say the rules around cool aging temperatures will get more challenging and expensive to follow as summer temperatures mount. Many are complaining about the rule forbidding imported feed.

Already hot and dry, the region has become hotter and drier — bothering the goats as much as their masters. Where local farmers once kept them inside during August, many say they now bring them into the cooler barns for the whole summer, digging early into the winter store of hay.

“Sometimes I’m frightened,” said Marceline Peglion, 36, watching over the 60 Alpine goats she and a business partner bought four years ago as part of a Picodon cheese-making farm. “Was it a good choice? Will it be worth anything in 10 or 15 years?”

Other questions are more existential. “If the climate becomes that of Morocco, what is terroir in fact?” Ms. Peglion asked.

She has pushed her hours forward, taking her goats out early before the sun turns oppressive, and dropped the afternoon milking during the hottest months, when the milking barn feels intolerable.

Simon Sauce, 20, and Jules Mathon , 22, farm workers carrying out milk checks on goats to verify the results of experiments at the Pradel farm, in Montélimar.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

The owners of the Serre goat farm in Ribes have adapted by building a huge barn costing 300,000 euros, or nearly $320,000, to dry crops during the damp seasons.

“With climate change, we can grow more in the winter than we could before because the temperatures are higher,” said Sylvain Balmelle, 40, one of the owners. “We need to make the best of that little advantage to make up for the loss.”

Some AOPs are simply demanding a change to their rules — something that can take years. Others worry that threatens to dilute the brand’s reputation, as well as maybe its product’s taste.

“When we sell a AOP cheese, we sell also a promise around the taste of the cheese, but there is also the promise of the image of the landscape,” said Ronan Lasbleiz, an expert at the National Institute of Origin and Quality working with six PDOs to address climate change.

Will customers be less likely to ask for Picodon cheese if it is no longer connected to goats roaming the scrubland in summer, nibbling on alfalfa and wild mint?

Ms. Peglion is among those wondering if the inflexible rules will handicap small farmers like her.

Others believe the AOP is the main reason small cheese makers have continued to survive in the face of industrialized farming, and that it will prove a lifeline in confronting climate change, too.

“The AOP is a recognition of our history and our values,” said Hervé Barnier, a sixth-generation Picodon cheesemaker with 150 goats near Vesc. “It has saved at least one or two generations. Maybe it will permit some of us to continue this job.”

Green pasture at Pracoutel, Hervé Barnier’s Picodon-making farm, near Vesc, Drôme.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting.

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