A wedge of aged Mimolette — Photo courtesy of Emily Monaco
Terroir is essential to the French conception of food, linking everything from wine, cheese and meat to its place of origin. But legend has it that terroir had a bit of help from good old-fashioned spite when the French created Mimolette, with its distinctive orange color and strangely lunar surface.
Legend has it that Mimolette was first invented in the 17th century based on the recipe for Edam. During the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), trade between the two countries was halted, thus preventing the French from gaining access to this popular cheese.
French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert purportedly commissioned Northern French cheesemakers to develop a substitute, which was dyed orange as a snub to the Dutch Royal House of Orange, according to Patricia Michelson’s Cheese: Exploring Taste and Tradition.
But master cheesemaker Paul-Alexandre Wullus claims things went a bit differently.
“This is the greatest cheesemaking debate of the 20th century,” he laughs.
He notes that while the era – and even the evocation of Colbert – check out, a few of the details of Mimolette’s origin story are far from exact, notably which came first: Mimolette or Edam.
“The first traces of Edam date to 1750, 1760,” he says. “Whereas with Mimolette, the first traces of a red cheese that resembles it come from 1620.”
According to Wullus, Colbert had a hand in Mimolette’s color insofar as he passed a law defining one permissible cheese color per country, making each country’s cheese more easily identifiable on trade routes.
“In France, we had white, the color of milk,” he says. “And in Holland, red. So Mimolette, at the beginning, was Dutch.”
For many, Mimolette remains a Dutch product; the cheese is even sometimes called vieux Hollande or “Old Holland,” and Holland remains the top exporter of the cheese.
But for Wullus, Mimolette is a decidedly French product.
“We cannot call the red cheese that was being made in the 17th century ‘Mimolette,'” says Wullus. “It wasn’t round; it was flat. And it didn’t have a deteriorated crust.”
Antoine Bernard’s aging Mimolette cheese — Photo courtesy of Antoine Bernard
This latter trait is an essential one distinguishing French Mimolette, not just from other cheeses, but also from Dutch iterations. Artisanal Mimolette should have a pockmarked crust – a sign of quality that that has nevertheless been cause for concern among consumers, particularly in the U.S.
The craters in Mimolette’s rind, after all, are made by burrowing cheese mites, a time-honored cheese-aging technique that the FDA finds hard to swallow; in 2013, it went so far as to forbid the importation of the cheese. Dutch versions of Mimolette, on the contrary, are covered with wax: no pockmarked surface, no unfortunate nightmares of eating tiny bugs.
But the craters on the surface of a truly artisanal Mimolette are there for a reason. They are what allow the right amount of air into the cheese, lending Mimolette its rich flavor and nutty aroma that ostensibly made it the favorite of former French President Charles de Gaulle. Waxed Mimolette, on the other hand, is less complex in flavor – and far easier to produce and to export.
“I feel like people are more familiar with waxed Dutch Mimolette than true, extra-vieille Mimolette,” says Wullus.
This extra-vieille or extra-old Mimolette is not the only artisanal one being produced in France today. In fact, the very first Mimolettes were not hard, but “mi-molles” – half-soft – as the cheese’s very name suggests.
Antoine Bernard of Fromagerie Ste Godeleine still produces a mi-molle Mimolette, made with whole, raw milk – a rarity among producers more likely to use skimmed or semi-skimmed milk.
These and other questions of authenticity and quality are usually regulated by AOP or AOC labels – the very same ones that make it impossible to produce Champagne in California. But Mimolette is not one of the lucky 46 French cheeses to bear this label, and its production is thus poorly regulated.
“Holland,” says Wullus, “by claiming the paternity of Mimolette, is trying to convince every country without a cheese culture that Mimolette is a ball of waxed cheese that isn’t made with raw milk. It makes it easier for the Netherlands to make it and export it everywhere, including to the U.S.”
Paul-Alexandre Wullus’ five-year aged Mimolette — Photo courtesy of Paul-Alexandre Wullus
The proof is in the pudding: even some ostensibly French Mimolettes are actually produced in Belgium and Holland, and only aged in France. And the top French producers of this distinctively Northern product are actually churning out industrial versions in Normandy.
There remain just a handful of producers making true, raw milk Mimolette in the North of France – in the Pas-de-Calais department, where Wullus works, he is one of only three, and less than a decade ago, when he began, he was the only one.
Wullus takes great pride in the ancestry of his method. In place of the more common annatto, he has even gone back to dying the cheese orange with carrots grown right next door, a technique he notes is “purely French, and purely northern.”
Joost Hammann, an Amsterdam-based cheesemonger at De Kaaskamer van Amsterdam, calls true French Mimolette “a piece of art.”
“It’s too bad we don’t have the AOP,” says Bernard. “There’s a real story to tell, a real French tradition. I don’t understand why it’s never really been recognized.”
“It’s my daily fight,” says Wullus…with one caveat.
“What would the rules be, though?” he says. “If it’s all about going back to traditional methods of fabrication, I’ll say ‘Yippee!’ and I’ll sign right away. But if we have to make compromises for the sake of profitability, I’m not interested.”