A few years ago, the dessert menu at two-Michelin-starred New York institution, Daniel, starred one central ingredient — fromage blanc. Fromage blanc, a fresh, creamy, white cheese with a texture and appearance similar to yogurt, is a household staple in France, purchased as regularly as milk. Using a French version manufactured in Normandy by the dairy cooperative Isigny Sainte-Mère, Daniel’s executive pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira crafted sorbets, biscuits, and mousses, each substituting out milk or cream for the light, silky cheese. That all changed in 2014, when Isigny had to abruptly halt exports of fromage blanc to the U.S. due to its packaging not complying with new FDA regulations. Soon after, chef/owner Daniel Boulud pulled all fromage blanc desserts from the menu.
Fromage blanc "is a highly perishable product that is very misunderstood by the American market."
"Boulud was absolutely obsessed with [our fromage blanc]," says Benoit de Vitton, U.S. representative for Isigny. "When we had to stop bringing in this product, he tried everything to get it back, but we couldn’t do it."
Fromage blanc has lately been acquiring fans at restaurants across the country, finding its way onto dessert menus at places like Blackbird in Chicago, Proof Bakery in Los Angeles, and Benoit in New York. The cheese is made by heating up milk at a low temperature (in contrast to yogurt, which is made at very high temperatures), adding specific cultures, and — a few hours later — draining out (either partially or fully) the curds. The end result is a sour, smooth product with infinite uses — the most common in France being topped with fruit or jam for dessert.
Most chefs choose to buy the product, as making quality fromage blanc in-house depends particularly heavily on "the best resources: freshest milk, correct cultures, and proper storage and handling to avoid spoilage," says Lynne Devereux, who manages communications for various California cheesemakers. But, as the case of Daniel illustrates, sourcing the best product is a tricky business. Fromage blanc is an item with a flashpoint of factors — versatility, freshness, and perishability — that make it highly difficult to transport into the U.S. So for chefs and exporters alike hoping to bring high-quality fromage blanc to American palates, the challenges are plentiful.
"The barriers for fromage blanc have more to do with the fact that it is a highly perishable product that is very misunderstood by the American market," says Alison Hooper, CEO of Vermont Creamery, one of the few producers of fromage blanc in the U.S.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), she says, is woefully uneducated about fromage blanc — it is technically a cheese, but looks like a yogurt, so it can be subjected to inconsistent regulations. And once it has been determined that fromage blanc is a cheese, the FDA has a strict 60-day aging rule for all cheeses, which states that any cheese aged under 60 days has to be made with pasteurized milk, a standard enforced through rigorous physical inspections. Fromage blanc found in local French cheese shops is typically made with raw milk.
"No cheese maker could make something similar to the French version here in the United States."
In order to import to the U.S., French companies have to use pasteurized milk, which can eliminate the flavor complexity present in the raw milk version. Plus, the cheese’s journey to the U.S. becomes a race against the clock. De Vitton says that with a cheese as fresh and as perishable as fromage blanc, between preparing shipping documentation, matching the cheese with the correct cargo ship, and clearing customs, by the time the product reaches America, "the shelf life [of fromage blanc] at the store is very short" — much shorter, in fact, than most fresh cheeses.
And sometimes, due to confusion around how to classify fromage blanc, the cheese will get held up and eventually spoil altogether during inspections. "These cheeses won’t be released for so long that the products are ruined," says Devereux. "And the FDA doesn’t have enough people to test them." Further compounding these regulatory issues is the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, whose restrictions are required to be in place at dairy companies by this year. De Vitton thinks that the Act puts too much liability on the importer of a product, meaning importers will be more hesitant to bring in products — like fromage blanc — that "they aren’t 100 percent sure about" because they’re so perishable, he says.
In this highly regulated import environment, chefs who yearn for the quality of the French product continue to search for ways around the restrictions, or French companies willing to send product their way — with minimal success.
Oliveira, the Daniel pastry chef, says that she spent a lot of time researching how to find imported French fromage blanc once the Isigny product was pulled from her distributor. "Someone mentioned they had [Isigny fromage blanc] at Zabar’s [a NYC gourmet grocer], so I would go three times a week and buy as much as I could — I would get the guy to go in the back for me," she says. "And then one day he told me they couldn’t get it anymore."
When her Zabar’s supply ran short, she tried working with fromage blanc from an American company, but it just wasn’t delivering the same texture and flavor as the Isigny cheese; it was less milky, less creamy, and too acidic (both were pasteurized versions). "It was totally different," she says, citing the quality of the milk as the biggest problem. "No cheesemaker could make something similar to [the French version] here."
Thomas Padovani, pastry chef of Alain Ducasse’s French bistro, Benoit, in New York, tried finding French fromage blanc but eventually had to settle for a local version. "The taste [of the local fromage blanc] is totally different than what I might eat in France," he says. "In France, the fromage blanc is much better. So I have to transform the American product with different flavors like citrus. It works for now, but I’d like to find something else."
Hooper notes that this difference in taste is due to scale in which fromage blanc is produced in America versus France. In America, she says, once the curds are created, the yogurt is drained in fabric, which stops some — but not all — of the creation of acid within the yogurt. This acid gives the American version its slightly saltier edge. In France, where the fromage blanc production facilities are much larger-scale, the curds are put through big filters that do a more thorough job of pulling moisture out and stopping the growth of acid, leading to a sweeter yogurt. "It’s a more neutral flavor than [the American version]," she says.
On the other hand, there are the individuals like the pastry chef of Chicago’s Blackbird, Nicole Guini, who tried fromage blanc for the first time when her boss, chef/owner Paul Kahan, introduced it to her as a tart, neutral base for a cheesecake. Guini hasn’t tried French fromage blanc, but she happily orders her cheese from Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, CA — finding no issues in quality.
In this highly regulated import environment, chefs who yearn the French product search for ways around the restrictions.
In fact, Hooper says that American-made fromage blanc, though slightly saltier in flavor than the French version, has found a unique niche of dedicated fans in the U.S. — like Guini — whose support has allowed it to stay on shelves with little to no marketing support. "[Fromage blanc] is becoming more of a household name," she says. "It’s such a versatile and great cheese that needs to be recognized. I was so excited to write ‘fromage blanc cheesecake’ on the menu."
At Vermont Creamery, sales of fromage blanc have remained steady — accounting for less than 10 percent of its overall sales — a figure Hooper says is too small to be able to determine whether or not recent changes in regulations have had an impact. But she continues to have "high hopes for Americans eating this product. People who discover it really love it," she says.
Meanwhile, Oliveira and Padovani are not completely out of luck: Isigny is preparing to reenter its fromage blanc into the U.S. market in September, having expended a lot of resources on making sure it meets all necessary regulations. This means investing in entirely new packaging, and completely changing the language and nutritional information on the label. While Isigny is not the biggest French exporter of dairy to the U.S., de Vitton says it is positioning itself to take on a much bigger role in the market — good news for Boulud’s team, which specifically favors the Isigny product.
De Vitton is hopeful that Americans will latch onto the product the way French consumers have. He says that now is a uniquely good time to get back into the American market, as artisanal dairy products are more popular than ever. "When I moved here five years ago, there was Fage, and that was it in terms of quality yogurt and other portable dairy products," he says. "Recently, this category has been exploding."
He’s cautiously optimistic, though, having been burned by regulations for a number of different products — not just fromage blanc. (The overnight 2013 ban of Isigny’s mimolette cheese due to the mites in the rind that create its primary flavor made national headlines and incited protests.) "One day your products can be authorized, and the next day some administration decides the products are banned," de Vitton says. "When you do the import business, you are never sure."
Devereux, who is a member of the American Cheese Society, says the organization is working on educating the FDA about lesser-known kinds of cheeses, like fromage blanc, and on the issues facing cheese makers; this includes suggesting language adjustments on bills, and holding forums on food safety that bring together industry representatives, scientists, consumers, and government officials. All of these efforts are in the hopes that the FDA will start to make more informed decisions about dairy regulations.
It’s an uphill battle, but one that fromage blanc’s biggest advocates seem more than willing to fight. "People didn’t know what goat’s milk cheese was back in the late ’90s, and now it’s a staple in people’s refrigerators," Devereux says. "That’s what’s going to happen in the world of fromage blanc."