It felt like a death in the family. And I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Learning that I might never again taste Abbaye de Belloc, one of my favorite French cheeses, made me frustrated and angry. (What are those five stages of grief?) The Benedictine monks who make this lovely Basque sheep cheese have decided not to share with the U.S. any longer. Who can blame them? And, alas, they aren’t the only European cheesemakers to reach this decision.
Laguiole, St. Marcellin, Montbriac, Brie de Melun, St. Nectaire fermier …all are MIA. And the list goes on, according to Brad Dubé of Food Matters Again, a New York-based importer that can no longer get any of these cheeses.
The monks have been shipping to the U.S. for at least two decades, but last spring they rebelled. “They didn’t want to do all the new paperwork involved with the Foreign Supplier Verification Program,” says Stephanie Ciano, vice president of international purchasing for World’s Best Cheese, their main U.S. importer. This new FDA initiative requires American importers to verify that suppliers are producing safe food.
Reasonable, no? But in practice, it’s daunting. European cheesemakers now have to supply mountains of documents about their production practices, recall procedures and HACCP plans and undergo (and pay for) repeat third-party inspections.
Large cheesemakers typically have the resources and know-how to comply and do enough business in the U.S. to repay the hassle. Artisan cheesemakers may not. Ciano says the producers of Tomme de Fédou, another French sheep cheese that was recalled last year for possible contamination, also declined to comply and she anticipates losing some Corsican cheeses, too. (The deadline for compliance is March 16.) “If they can sell everything they make in Europe, they don’t always see why they need to bother,” she says.
The Abbaye de Belloc monks are aging, with few young replacements, making them less inclined to jump through hoops for the FDA, says Ciano, whose company was importing 18,000 pounds of the cheese a year. The monks are still making the cheese and selling it in France.
According to Dubé, several other French cheeses, like Laguiole and the goat’s-milk Tome de Bordeaux, are no longer being shipped because they can’t count on passing the FDA’s stringent bacterial tests.
What’s a Basque sheep-cheese lover to do? Here are a few suggested alternatives to my beloved Abbaye de Belloc, all of them similar aged sheep cheeses from France’s Basque region. Even so, I’m in mourning.
Secret de Compostelle (pictured above); This nine-pound wheel is made by Agour, a highly respected creamery, and matured for seven to eight months (longer than most in this category). The texture is silky and the aroma nutty, with a hint of sour cream. A real favorite.
Ossau-Iraty: This is a PDO, so many producers make it and regulations govern how and where it is made. I like it well matured, when it develops a beautiful balance of salty, spicy and sweet flavors.
Petit Agour: a small wheel (about 1-3/4 pounds) made by Agour, with seductive roasted-nut and caramel aromas.
Tomme Brulée: from renowned affineur Pascal Beillevaire, this cheese is torched on the outside (brulée) for appearance only. The texture is tender and creamy, the aromas a combination of warm brown butter, toasted walnuts, broiled lamb chops and light caramel.
Inevitably, in a restaurant in French Basque country, the aged sheep cheese comes with black-cherry jam. I adore K. L. Keller’s Black Cherry confit but it appears to be out of stock. Poking around a Middle Eastern market in Berkeley, I found these sour cherry preserves, and they are delicious.
Three Seats Left!
Thursday, April 19
Trefethen Family Vineyards
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m
Please join me on Thursday evening, April 19, for “Best Newcomers,” a sit-down tasting devoted to superb American cheeses that didn’t exist five years ago. Get to know the next big stars! Trefethen Vineyards in Napa is our beautiful setting for this class and the remainder of my six-part World Cheese Tour. Find the entire schedule here. Classes are sold singly but I offer a discount on the whole series.