This seasonal cycle remained unbroken for more than 2,000 years until last week, when the salers became the latest victim of severe heat waves that have wreaked havoc across Europe, where climate change originated human activity has intensified temperatures. France’s severe drought put an end to cheese production which had continued through two world wars, the collapse of monarchies and the fall of the Roman Empire.
The decision to stop making cheese was based on two factors: the completely parched state of the meadows and the rules that govern the production of salers.
In France, the drought period has been so severe that the country has 62 regions with restrictions on water use – including Cantal, where salers is produced. But it’s not just a drought; wildfires also raged, displacing thousands of people. This year’s infernos have already burned more acres there than any year before.
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Salers is what is known as a PDO product, or a product bearing the European Union Protected Designation of Origin label. The designation signifies that a product comes from a specific region and has an officially established reputation – similar to champagne or Kalamata olive oil. But carrying the label also means the product must meet strict standards – and that’s why drought has been such an issue.
In the mountainous, volcanic region of Auvergne, 78 farmers toil between April 15 and November 15 to turn more than 3 million gallons of milk into around 2.4 million pounds of salers cheese each year, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture. Agriculture. During these seven months, dairy cows graze as much fresh grass as possible. Their raw milk is collected in a wooden container then curdled, pressed and salted. The mixture is then left to mature in a cylindrical mold for three months to a year.
For milk to be used, the rules for salers state that at least 75% of the cow’s diet must be grass from local pastures.
“Salers is a seasonal cheese, made with seasonal grass. This is one of the pillars of its identity,” Laurent Lours, president of L’AOP Salers, a local group of cheese makers, told France Bleu. “With more hay [instead of grass], the paste would be whiter; we would have less flavor. Our product still has a certain reputation among consumers, we don’t want to break it.
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The drought has made reaching this threshold an impossible feat. The normally lush green pastures are now shrunken and brown. There just isn’t enough grass for the cows to feed on almost exclusively, local farmers said.
“The ground is so dry, so hard, that in some places it looks like ash. It’s dust,” Laurent Roux, a farmer, told France Bleu, adding that his cows had not grazed since the end of June. “We’ve always had dry spells in the summer, but it’s hard, very hard.”
When a similar situation occurred in 2019, AOP Salers requested and obtained an exemption to use milk from cows with a local grass consumption of only 50%. But this year’s drought proved so bad that taking a similar route “isn’t worth it”, Lours said: “We don’t even have enough for 50% of the grass”.
The specter of drought hangs over dairy farmers, who are already grappling with higher fuel costs and food prices. One option they have, Lours told La Montagne, is to use their milk to make cantal, a type of cheese similar to salers but without as many restrictions. However, this in itself comes with a financial loss, since salers is valued more than cantal.
What cheese makers are facing underscores a broader trend of climate change that is weighing on people’s livelihoods – effects that may become more widespread in the future.
According to the European Drought Observatory, 47% of Europe is in “alert” conditions for severe drought and major soil moisture deficit. A further 17% are in ‘alert’ conditions – how badly the vegetation is suffering, in some cases disappearing or thinning out.
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Many French staples, such as mustard, wine, peppers and mussels, have already been hit by the drought. Salers now joins the growing list – a major blow in a country known for its huge variety of cheeses.
“No AOP Salers cheese on our tables this winter,” wrote French photojournalist Thomas Jouhannaud on Twitter. “A direct consequence of the drought we are all experiencing.”
“Some will laugh, I cry,” he added.
Others plead for rain.