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Saddled with 4,000 wheels of surplus cheese, French monks tried pleading with their cows to produce less milk. When that didn’t work, they turned to the internet.
Locked down in the abbey’s cellar in Côte d’Or, France, more than two metric tons of Abbaye de Cîteaux cheese faced an uncertain fate. The Cîteaux Abbey’s cheesemaking monks launched an online sale in an urgent bid to find appreciative bellies before the product spoiled.
“Opération Fromage” was completed in just 24 hours: Via online retailer Divine Box , they more than doubled their one-ton goal by selling all 2,007 kilograms of their raw milk cheese. “Sale is over,” the site proclaimed, “there is no cheese left.”
In normal times, the abbey’s award-winning Reblochon-style cheese is highly sought after. The Cîteaux Abbey was founded in 1098 and is the birthplace of the Catholic Cistercian order of monks. Keeping up with demand from restaurants, specialized dairies and visitors to the historic abbey is typically their primary concern — not scrambling to find buyers.
Restaurants have been closed since Oct. 30 in an effort to contain France’s third wave of COVID-19. With their restaurant sales curtailed and fewer visitors to the Cîteaux Abbey on-site shop, sales decreased by nearly 50 per cent, The Guardian reports. The surplus amounted to 2.8 metric tons of cheese sitting in their cellars.
“We tried explaining to our 75 cows that they needed to produce less milk but they don’t seem to have understood,” brother Jean-Claude, who manages marketing for the monastery, told The Guardian .
In an effort to clear out their stock, the monks went to Divine Box, online purveyors of monastic products including beer, cheese, jam, terrines and wine. The minimum order would be for two 700-gram wheels of Abbaye de Cîteaux cheese for 22.90 euros ($34) each, plus shipping.
The monastic cheese factory, 24 kilometres south of Dijon, has been in operation since 1925. The monks sell 140,000 cheeses each year, which amount to 1.2 million euros ($1.8 million) in revenue, according to EN24 News .
The cheese is made entirely from raw milk from the abbey’s herd and the 19 monks undertake all aspects of production. Last year, Abbaye de Cîteaux cheese won the silver medal at the prestigious Concours International de Lyon. “Normally, we refuse orders. We are sold in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Dubai,” brother Jean-Claude reportedly said.
Cheese has figured into French pandemic life in a major way. In May 2020, producers called on consumers to do “ what you can for cheese ” in order to save 5,000 tons of surplus from being destroyed. Then in June there was cheesemaker Lionel Vaxelaire, who inadvertently created a new type — Le Confiné (a play on the French word for confinement) — when he neglected roughly 60 wheels of Munster he was unable to sell.
As it turns out, cheese producers needn’t have worried: The French have eaten a record amount of cheese during the pandemic. At-home cheese consumption increased by more than eight per cent in 2020, Reuters reports. Mozzarella emerged as the most popular style, with a 21 per cent increase.
Raclette, a washed-rind cow’s-milk cheese from the French and Swiss Alps, often melted and oozed over boiled potatoes, bread, cured meats and pickles, came in second with a 12 per cent jump. Comté, a raw-milk cheese made in the Massif du Jura region of eastern France, came in third with an eight per cent increase.
It only seems natural that demand for raclette machines also increased during lockdown. Showing an impressive commitment to melted cheese, sales of the machines — which range from individual candle-powered pans to electric heat lamps accommodating half-wheels — were up 300 per cent, according to The Local France . And they were apparently put to good use: the French ate 34,000 metric tons of the melting cheese in 2020.
Reblochon is an ingredient in another heart-warming Alpine dish, tartiflette : a gratin of bacon, cheese, onions and potatoes often enjoyed after taking to the slopes. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that 4,000 wheels of acclaimed Abbaye de Cîteaux cheese swiftly flew off the virtual shelves. Altruism is easy when it comes with a side of melted cheese.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021