By Cassandra Szklarski The Canadian Press
TORONTO — A Quebec co-operative is savouring sweet victories at the World Championship Cheese Contest, including a win for best camembert that has left a bitter taste in France.
Agropur’s smooth Camembert L’Extra, made in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., edged out the French dairy group Lactalis, which placed second with its entry, made in Belmont, Wisc.
French media have reacted strongly, with the French weekly magazine VSD declaring it “a shameful and stinging defeat” and Ouest-France topping its story with a headline that translates as: “How can it be? The best camembert in the world is from Quebec.”
Agropur’s technical director of fine cheese, Maryse Lamoureux, says they are surprised by the reaction, but believe the flap has drawn more attention to their win than the championship itself.
She says their creamy concoction sold out at the store in their Quebec plant soon after the win. She adds it’s readily available at groceries across the country.
The contest took place in Madison, Wisc. from March 6 to 8, when a jury of 50 experts from different countries considered 3,402 cheeses from 26 countries.
Lamoureux notes Monday that it’s not Agropur’s first win at the bi-annual championship, “but it’s the first that is publicized.”
“I think it’s because of the French press that it’s become bigger and bigger. Normally it’s more quiet when we win a prize,” says Lamoureux, whose St-Hubert camembert placed in the top 3 in 2012 and 2014.
Overall, Canadians did well in this year’s camembert category, which pitted 17 contenders from around the world.
A camembert from Natural Pastures Cheese Co. in Courtenay, B.C. placed third, while another Agropur entry placed eighth, and one from Fromagerie Isle aux grues, from Isle aux grues, Que., placed ninth.
Two other camemberts from France place 10th and 12th.
Agropur describes its winning cheese as having a “hazelnut-and-mushroom flavour.”
Quebec’s triumph appeared to hit hard in France, where the delicate cow’s milk treat is believed to have first appeared in the mid-to-late 1700s in Camembert, Normandy.
“It’s a scandal, a fraud. The jury must have been bought,” proclaimed VSD. “Or, if not, it’s a shameful and stinging defeat.”
Belgian press also registered surprise. A headline by Paris Match Belgique echoed Ouest-France, while employing a common Quebec swear word: “Tabarnak! Le meilleur camembert du monde est ‚Ä¶ quebecois.”
It went on to note: “It’s called ‘l’Extra.’ A name that rings rather well for the creme de la creme of camemberts. Except it wasn’t made by our Gaulois (French) cousins but rather across the Atlantic on land better known for its poutine and maple syrup.”
Agropur, owned by more than 3,000 dairy farmers, scored four other wins through cheeses made by its United States facilities, including: best mozzarella, best smoked provolone, best feta and best shredded cheese (flavoured and unflavoured).
Canadian producers at Parmalat also scored well, with its Winchester, Ont., facility taking first and third place in the sharp cheddar category. The same facility placed third in the flavoured butter category and third in the mild cheddar category.
Meanwhile, the Orangeville, Ont. facilities run by Saputo Dairy Products Canada produced the best soft goat’s milk cheese and third-best “flavored soft goat’s milk cheese with sweet condiments.”
Its smoked caciocavallo from a facility in St-Laurent, Que., came second in the smoked smoked provolone category.
Cheese produced at two of Agropur’s U.S. facilities won several prizes in 2016, including best cheddar aged two years or longer, best part skim mozzarella, best feta and best flavoured feta.
And it’s certainly not the first time that a non-French camembert has won the award.
Saputo’s St-Laurent, Que. plant won the camembert category in 2010. Meanwhile, an Australian cheese triumphed in 2012 and German cheeses won in 2014 and 2016.
A French cheese was named this year’s overall winner, though. A hard sheep’s milk cheese called Esquirrou, made at Mauleon Fromagerie, was named 2018 World Champion Cheese.
Lamoureux says most Canadians can easily sample the winning camembert since it is sold in grocery stores across the country.
“It’s not hard to find the camembert L’Extra … but maybe it will (be hard to find) in the next days,” she chuckles.