Cheese sales soar in French lockdown – but an Italian is biggest winner

By Kim Willsher

How did the French keep smiling through the Covid lockdown? Not by saying “cheese” but by eating it, figures suggest.

Researchers say cheese consumption at home soared last year as the confined population sought comfort food. And in a nation that boasts 246 kinds of cheese, as noted by the former president Charles de Gaulle, it was Italian mozzarella that benefited most, with a 21.2% rise in sales in 2020.

Others on the rise were raclette – a mostly winter speciality cheese melted and eaten with charcuterie and boiled potatoes – up 12.2%, comté (8.2%) and emmental (7.8%).

According to data from the French agency AgriMer, sales of cheeses produced from cows’ milk rose by 9.4%, organic goats’ cheese jumped by 32.2% and organic sheep’s cheese rose by 5.5%.

The increase in consumption at home was offset against a decrease in purchases from restaurants forced to close during the three-month lockdown that began in March and the second lockdown that started in October.

The figures were reported in the specialist food magazine Les Marchés, which said: “The purchase of cheeses by the French for consumption at home beat all records in 2020 because of the pandemic.”

It said cheese had “several advantages that come into play during this strange period. It can be used as an ingredient, especially as home cooking has increased especially during the first lockdown. It is synonymous with comfort, especially when melted, and it plays a part in conviviality with raclettes or more refined meals … it is also being used as part of a menu, mostly in the evening, for an easy and quick meal.”

French consumer organisations also noted an increase in the sale of raclette machines – used to melt the cheese – for use in homes. A spokesperson for the appliances store Boulanger told Le Figaro newspaper that sales of the machine leapt by more than 200% last November.

Last year the Association des Fromages Traditionnels des Alpes Savoyardes (AFTAlp), producers of raclette cheese, said home sales had compensated for the loss of restaurant orders.

At least 15% of raclette cheese produced in the Savoie region is sold to ski stations. While winter sports mountain resorts have remained open this winter, the government ordered them to shut their lifts, meaning no downhill skiing has been possible.

The French are believed to consume on average 26.4kg of cheese a year, according to 2017 figures, behind Danes, Icelanders and Finns in Europe. The most popular cheese in France is camembert, closely followed by comté. When pollsters ask the French for their view on having a meal without cheese, the most common response is “unimaginable”.