03/18/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated May 18, 2014

Much Ado About Munster: Cheese Names Do Matter

By Meg Zimbeck

There are a lot of inflammatory stories in the media about how Europe is trying to bully the U.S. in trade talks into "giving back" its cheese names. Should producers in Vermont be able to name their cheese after a French or Italian village? Are these names about civic pride, or do they indicate something more? As someone who regularly encounters Americans' confusion about names during my weekly French cheese tours in Paris, I have some thoughts. First of all: this isn't new.

France has been trying to protect cheese names for almost 100 years

Since the early 20th century, a system called Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) has provided legal protection to hundreds of French products that are made in very specific ways and places. They have a similar system in Italy called DOC (these systems are also referred to as AOP and DOP, but that's another story). AOC protects everything from wine (Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the first designation) to lentils to heritage breed chickens like poulet de Bresse. The first of 46 French cheeses to win AOC status was Roquefort, way back in 1925. AOC regulations specify where a cheese can be made, but they also lay out a sort of recipe that must be followed if the product is to bear the authentic name.

The "recipe" for Roquefort (which, like all AOC protected cheeses, is presented on a French government website) indicates the breed of sheep that must be used, where those sheep can graze, for how long and in what specific cave the cheese must be aged. Why? Because all of those factors influence the taste of the resulting cheese. People making blue cheese from cows' milk in Wisconsin are not allowed to call it Roquefort. If they do, the INAO will come after them.

American cheese companies have been duping consumers for decades

Every week during one of our cheese tasting tours, somebody frowns when I order the Munster. "I was hoping to taste something a little stronger," they often say, because the Munster they have sampled outside of France is a mild and wimpy deli cheese. They freak out (in a good way) when I share the real thing. French Munster made from the raw milk of cows grazing in the Vosges mountains is pungent and delicious. The rind is ruddy and sticky thanks to red bacteria that have been attracted to the wet washed rind surface, and those bacteria are particular to the location. Because place really does matter, the people who produce this cheese in the neighboring region of Lorraine, using almost exactly the same method, are required to give it a different name (Gérômé). If these guys can't use the name Munster, why should American producers of flavorless factory cheese be permitted to do so? They're not, and they've been getting around the rules by adding an extra "e" to distinguish their tasteless Muenster.

Another trick is to drop (the protected) part of the name, turning Brie de Meaux and Camembert de Normandie into plain old brie and camembert. And plain they are. Brie and camembert sold in the U.S. are pasteurized, bearing virtually no resemblance to their raw milk counterparts in France. American health regulations, which are quite different than those in other countries, insist that cheeses that have been aged for less than 60 days must be made from pasteurized milk. The AOC regulations of Brie de Meaux and Camembert de Normandie specify that these must be made from raw milk and aged for specific periods that are in both cases less than 60 days. In other words, the authentic product cannot legally be sold in the U/S. It is only possible to sell an adulterated version and to tweak the name.

But wait -- French cheese companies are also doing it...

Read more in the full story on Paris by Mouth