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Munchies

Belgians Are Ready to Defend Their Right To Stinky Cheese

Herve cheese is one of the many symbols of regional pride in the province of Liège. It might even have ended up on the coat of arms if it wasn’t so embarrassing to love something that smells so terrible.

by Elisabeth Debourse
Jul 17 2016, 4:00pm

Photo by Janelle Jones

With its sticky crust, soft inside made of raw milk, and that distinctive, haunting smell it leaves on the tip of your fingers, Herve cheese is one of the many symbols of regional pride in the province of Liège, in eastern Belgium. It might even have ended up on the city's coat of arms if it weren't so embarrassing to love something that smells so terrible. The delicacy is at least six centuries old—and it's the only AOP cheese in the entire country.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that people got up in arms when, in 2015, a hygiene inspection conducted by the AFSCA (the Belgian agency that controls food safety) forced one of the two remaining old-school producers of "Herve" to close up shop. Event though the routine visit did reveal traces of the potentially lethal listeria bacteria, the Belgian population campaigned in the press and on social media against the AFSCA. They fought for the survival of their local cheese—and by extension, of their culinary heritage.

For the defenders of the rice tart, the inspections undertaken by the Agency are no less than than another affront to the diversity of the local culinary heritage.

The opposition grabbed their torches and pitchforks—which, in this case, took the form of successful petitions, vengeful Facebook groups, an angry blog, and the creation of civilian committees that support producers during inspections. The AFSCA tried to polish off its image as best it could during this media frenzy, even attempting to erase any mention of the affair on its Wikipedia page.

Despite the ire of the country, the agency persisted and signed off on the measure. Then, last June, it attacked the sacrosanct rice tart of Verviers, another beloved regional specialty. What was AFSCA's big concern? The rice tart, made with raw milk, is normally preserved at room temperature. In other words, it's a veritable nest for bacteria.

Among the rabid defenders of the dessert, there's the Rice Tart Guild (yes, that's a thing) and Muriel Gerkens, a politician from the Ecolo party, who went so far as to utter the following sensible statement: "What is this country that wants to authorize Roundup [the Monsanto herbicide], yet ban the rice tart?"

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Screenshot from the Facebook page of Muriel Gerkens.

The AFSCA tried to backtrack by saying that it simply ordered a study of preservation temperatures. But for the defenders of the rice tart, the inspections undertaken by the Agency are no less than another affront to the diversity of the local culinary heritage.

"There is no knowledge of any toxicity tied to this mode of preservation, and as far as I know, given how many people eat it. If it was dangerous, we would know by now. It was the same thing with Herve cheese! There was listeria, but it was much less dangerous because it was accompanied by other bacteria—unlike a cheese you pasteurize that could really be dangerous," responded Patrick Böttcher of Slow Food, an international movement dedicated to eco-gastronomy and sustainable food production.

For Belgians, the biggest concern is that these sanitary measures could make terroir milk disappear for good.

Behind the controversy—which might seem unimportant to someone who has never experienced the flavors of a real rice tart warmed in a stone oven—there are larger concerns of the AFSCA doing this dirty work in order to follow European hygiene policies.

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The famous rice tart, made with raw milk—a specialty of Verviers. Photo via televesdre.eu.

For Belgians, the biggest concern is that these sanitary measures could make terroir milk disappear for good. Killing off the germs that naturally occur in milk doesn't just change the way it tastes—it also contributes to its impoverishment. Certain purists even compare the disappearance of raw milk to the extinction of an animal species (Véronique Richez-Lerouge, author of a book on the subject, calls it "dead milk").

"Of course, you have to have sanitary conditions and do what's necessary to eliminate pathogenic germs. Our society, though, is all about zero risk—and yet there's no such thing," said Michel Behrin of the Groupement d'Intérêt Économique (GIE, or Economic Interest Group) of raw milk, which is actually a member of the small producers division of the AFSCA. What few people realize today is that supermarket milk becomes inert after pasteurization, explains the GIE. Whether it's in France or in Belgium, you have to sow it again in order for it to regain its natural qualities. "It's the type of thing you see globally across the agricultural industry: people want to maximize profits, even if it means producing junk," Behrin said.

Would you like a few more germs to go with your rice tart?

This post originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR in July 2016.