The AOC dilemma

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I first met Bronwen Percival, now better known as the buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy and the founder of the London Gastronomy Seminars when she was a student, writing a paper on the shortcomings of the PDO and AOC system.  At the time, my experience of this system was purely UK based and to be honest in the UK, PDO certification isn’t hugely meaningful.

Stilton, our most famous PDO (Product of Designated Origin) cheese has enshrined in its certified production methods, the use of pasteurised milk.  The PDO was organised and established when most of the Stilton producers in the UK were using pasteurised milk as this was the trend at the time in UK dairying.  I think this was sometime in the 1960s.  The second best known PDO in the UK is that for West Country Cheddar and in this, production standards were so loosely worded that it encompassed block and traditional clothbound wheels of cheddar.  Where the Silton PDO did at least ensure that its cheeses adhered to basic production standards, for instance a natural rinded cylinder form and that this was not bound in wax of plastic to lock more moisture in, the West Country Cheddar PDO only really established the geographical origin as a quality measure.  Jamie Montgomery, one of the best known and respected cheddar makers in the UK decided to leave the PDO because it was more damaging to his brand than enhancing it.  Hafod, one of the most traditional recipe cheddars currently made in the UK can not fit into the PDO although in essence its recipe is one that was followed on farms all over Somerset before the 1920s.

However, I was of the impression that the AOC system in France worked better; that it actually protected the important factors of traditional production as it was set up at a time when there was considerably more farmhouse cheese production knowledge and thus it was more meaningful.  Since working at Mons Cheesemongers it has become apparent that wherever it becomes a marketing tool and has financial importance as a result, it loses its ability to protect tradition.  And this, if I remember correctly, in a nutshell is what Bronwen Percival proposed around 9 years ago.  She’s a clever one.

Mons have recently encountered their own issues with the AOC systems and these cover the immensely petty to the more fundamental.  A key area that causes concern is that the AOC system in some places encourages the use of specific AOC approved starter cultures and this in turn means that individual producers cheeses personalities are not able to be fully expressed.  In fact, with different intentions of course, it achieves the same end as globalisation and industrialisation of cheese.  Many farmhouse cheeses in the UK who don’t have the same variety and choice of starter cultures or the knowledge to ferment their own, end up using around 2 or 3 freeze dried cultures bought from Christian Hansen.  These cultures are also used by the block, factory cheeses.  It isn’t the best way to reveal the full individuality of the milk.  This is a big topic and indeed it’s one for another post but the essence is that by buying commercial cultures, the individuality of each producer diminishes.  We will not ever live in an age of identikit cheeses: recipe, cheesemakers’ skill and farming methods resulting in differing compositions of the milk will answer for that, however it does mean that we don’t have the full effect of the terroir, farming system, breed of the animal and cheesemaking skill reflected in the final cheeses.  An example here of the bureacracy of the AOC system here is Mons’s Beaufort Alpage and Ete (see picture).  These are made by a cheesemaker who makes his own starter in the latte inesto style I described after the milk workshops I attended in Bra.  He makes his own rennet too from dried stomachs of his male calves.  However he has 2 farms.  This means he can not be considered artisanal because his production is too big and yet his recipe and key production techniques are the quintessence of tradition.

Meanwhile, Mons is having to rebrand a few of their Provencal goats cheeses as a result of wanting to improve them.  The AOC states that in order to be considered to bear their name, they have to have a minimum aging time in the area.  In principle, I can understand the argument for this, however in practice it has problems.  Mons in France (the parent company of Mons Cheesemongers) have been encountering problems with the goats cheeses as they needed better drying facilities before the age at which they arrived in Lyons for affinage.  It’s quite a big ask that each farmer should be able to invest in state of the art drying facilities.  Herve Mons decided that he could accomplish that for them better at his own caves.  However this means that they are no longer AOC cheeses.  And thus renaming has happened.  Jane, explained this recently to Mons Cheesemongers Wholesale customers.  I have copied her words so this is straight from the horse’s mouth as it were:

‘it’s time to focus in on our Loire goats cheeses… & in this region, change is afoot. Being such a well known area for goats milk, many of the Loirien cheeses are protected by AOCs. & within the rules of these AOCs, it’s stated that cheeses can only share the prestigious protected names if the remain in their region until at least 10 days old.

Well, Mr Mons has plans for improving his maturing of these recipes & part of his scheme entails bringing the cheeses into our caves so he can manage the drying process himself. And that means getting hold of the cheeses at the earliest stage possible.

In order to take this step towards improving the evolution of these cheeses, he’s had to rename a number of them so’s not to contradict the AOC rules. & so ladies & gentleman, we give you……

Selles sur Couffy for Selles sur Cher (the Couffy is a tributary of the Cher river which runs by the producer’s farm),

Pouligny for Pouligny St Pierre,

Ste Maure de la Dragonniere for Ste Maure de Touraine &

Auzanne Cendree for Valencay’

It may be time for the AOC system as well as that of our own UK PDOs to consider adaptation and evolution.

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4 thoughts on “The AOC dilemma

    1. It’s a bit out of my area of knowledge to be honest but I did hear from a friend who makes wine in France that a number of Loire winemakers have left their local AOCs too. I think the system may need review across a variety of products.

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