The French were scandalised recently when they discovered that 1.5 tonnes of French Mimolette cheese had been banned from entering the United States.
Citing health concerns, the cheese was impounded in a customs warehouse in New York. To add insult to injury, the round bowling-ball cheese was also classified – rather unfortunately – as “filthy, putrid or decomposed… otherwise unfit as food”.
Part of the reasoning for the ban on Mimolette is that the flavour is developed using what would seem to be a very peculiar method: cheese mites. Similar to flour mites, these tiny bugs are added to the surface of the cheese to develop its flavour.
As unappealing as that may sound, the thick cheese rind is usually not eaten and any mites left on the surface should not pose a health risk to consumers. The mites are normally brushed off before the cheese goes on sale, but naturally not all will be removed from the distinctively rough surface of the cheese.
The American customs agency was not impressed and decided the cheese contained too many mites to be considered suitable for sale in the United States. Mimolette producers in France were outraged at the rejection of one of their traditional French products. In no time at all, the French rallied in defence of one of their own and a Facebook group, Save the Mimolette, was created.
The well-known French dairy producer Isigny-Ste-Mère exports up to 60 tonnes of the cheese every year to the United States and, coming in at around 80 euros per kilo, that’s a lot of valuable cheese. To prevent further loss of stock, it has been suggested to remove the outer rind prior to sale and replace it with wax, but some producers are dismissing this idea.
Sadly, the cheese impounded in New York had to be destroyed, much to the consternation of cheese connoisseurs worldwide.
Production of Mimolette cheese dates back to the 17th century when French cheesemakers, inspired by the hard Dutch Gouda cheese, decided to create their own version: the distinctive orange, round cheese that is still produced in much the same way today. Often seen as a curse by other cheesemakers, the French regard the cheese mite as a hero for creating the unique Mimolette flavour and characteristic pitted crust.
The history of Mimolette centres on the area around the French city of Lille on the border with Belgium, in a region known as French Flanders. Thanks to a long association with Belgium and the Netherlands, the people of this region typically speak in the dialect of French Flanders called French Flemish, which includes elements of Dutch.
The region is known historically as one of the areas under German command during World War II and the coastal town of Dunkirk was the scene of a dramatic evacuation operation by Allied troops in 1941. The city of Lille is also famous for being the hometown of microbiologist Louis Pasteur and physicians Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin, who discovered the first anti-tuberculosis vaccine, the BCG (“Bacille de Calmette et Guérin“) at the Louis Pasteur Institute.