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France milks cheese for all its worth

  • Story Highlights
  • Milk industry is booming in France, now has larger turnover than steel industry
  • Dairy industry worth $6 billion, French eat 24 kilos of dairy per person a year
  • Cheesemaker: Cheese is gastronomic emblem of France
  • Last cheese census found around 1,000 different kinds of cheeses in France
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From Jim Bittermann
Senior European Correspondent
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CAMEMBERT, France (CNN) -- We're up in the north central part of France -- Normandy -- to see what's happening with French cheese. Cheese lovers will be happy to know, just about nothing, at least as far as the traditional cheeses are concerned.

Cheese from the Camembert region now carries the same cachet as a chateau label for wine.

Cheese from the Camembert region now carries the same cachet as a chateau label for wine.

But for the milk industry in general, it's another story. It has now a larger annual turnover than the steel industry in France (which admittedly is in decline.)

Somehow the French have figured a way to export dairy products to people who already have cows and their own dairy industries-- to the tune of nearly €4 billion ($6 billion) per year.

CNN spoke to a few of the people who do just that everyday and who are part of the changing face of France.

Philippe Meslon, the mayor of Saint-Loup de Fribois and the administrator of the Saint-Loup cheese works says: "A camembert not made out of raw milk is like making love without sex.

"A Frenchman is someone who cultivates with modern evolution his past. It's someone who protects moral values, cultural values and artistic values, and when I say cultural values I would include camembert."

Meslon and small cheese makers like Francois Durand, who has 40 cows, have struggled and won the right to an Appelation d'Origine Controllee -- the mark AOC for their "Camembert de Normandie" which carries the same cachet as a chateau label for wine.

For Durand making cheese is about not cutting corners.

"You have to have the passion," he says. "Yes it's difficult because it means a lot of work. We make it all by hand. I do believe it is important because the cheese is an emblem of France. It is a gastronomic emblem."

Still some small cheesemakers have been driven out of business and the taste and smell of their particular cheeses are lost to the world forever.

For Michel Delorme it was a combination of new, more stringent rules and his age that led him to quit producing his handmade Camemberts.

Michel Delorme: "It's more and more complicated for those who stay in the business. They must hold out! Yes I miss the cheese a little. That's true. But I've kept my souvenirs, you see I've kept my old milk cans so I can stay in the spirit of Camembert!"

Despite those who've quit, the actual number of the variety of cheeses in France is growing. At the last cheese census more than 1,000 different kinds of cheeses were made here.

The milk industry is no small cheese in France, thanks to the efforts of people like Philippe Jachnik who travels the world endlessly promoting milk products, which these days include protein supplements and milk derivatives that can go into all sorts of processed food.

Jachnik, who works for the milk marketing consortium, says: "I really would say I am selling the French approach to milk. We EAT a lot of milk. We DRINK a lot of water, wine, beer and coffee. But drinking milk is not a big business here.

"France has developed technological and marketing knowledge about adding value to a raw material-- milk. I have been traveling for 40 years all around the world and I feel so welcome. When you are French and you demonstrate that being French you can listen to others, people are interested in knowing about this country, about its people, about the way of life here."

Jachnik must be doing a good job as it's not just abroad that the French are selling more milk products-- cheese consumption in France has doubled from 12 to 24 kilos per person per year.

It seems there's no curding their enthusiasm ... E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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