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Say cheese: With 700 varieties, Wallonia is leading the way in taste and tradition
The most remarkable thing about cheese in Wallonia is its sheer diversity. The region boasts about 700 varieties, be they hard mountain-style, unctuous and pungent, washed, unwashed or bloomy. And if the explosion in quality dairy products has been fuelled by the success of the local food movement, its roots lie in the souring of the milk industry.
With the price of milk frequently dropping below production costs, enterprising farmers turned to the value-added business of making cheese, yoghurt and butter. They joined a cheese-making tradition that has been ripe in Belgium since the Middle Ages, in which small-scale industrial producers, monasteries and abbeys are responsible for many of the region’s familiar brands.
Also part of this growing band of cheesemakers are entrepreneurial artisans, reviving the traditional art of cheesemaking and enjoying the satisfaction of selling directly to consumers. One value they all share is a passion for making real cheese with integrity. The artisan process allows varieties to develop their own personality and reflect the flavour of local milk, uniting farming with flavour.
When choosing regional products for his shop, Chez Maître Corbeau in Namur, young cheese refiner Antoine Stoffels insists on cheeses made from unpasteurised milk and favours cow breeds other than the ubiquitous dairy Holstein. Other criteria are proximity and taste.
“The most important thing is being a link between the producer and the consumer and having relationships based on confidence,” says Stoffels, who opened his store in April 2017 and sells at markets in the region. Around half the cheeses that fill his counter are regular varieties, while the other half varies, to keep customers coming back. Stoffels: “Belgians like cheeses with character, and Walloon varieties have plenty of that.”
In Brussels, Wallonia’s cheeses have an unlikely ambassador: French expat Véronique Socié, who opened Belgium’s first cheese bar in 2017 to showcase the best of the country’s dairy products. Offering up to 40 varieties of Belgian cheeses, the majority from Wallonia, La Fruitière, which she runs with son Léo, is a place for customers to get advice before they buy, as well as savouring her quality selection.
She describes the strength of Belgium’s cheese industry as part of a continent-wide phenomenon. “The difference in Belgium is that localisation is more dynamic; people want to buy and eat local products,” she says. “What I also see is that producers want contact with consumers. They are proud of their products and want to share their passion.”
One of Socié’s favourites is Herve, the Liège cheese made from cow’s milk and traditionally unpasteurised and for the moment the only cheese in Belgium to have the AOC quality provenance label. She also has a soft spot for the cheeses of the Hautes Fagnes region, including Troufleur, as they remind her of the mountain cheeses of her native Jura in eastern France. “There are different challenges to producing at higher altitudes and in different weather,” she explains.
Wallonia’s agriculture department Apaq-W is backing farmers’ diversification and campaigning for consumers to eat local. One of the key challenges is helping farmers increase production, explains Guy Lecocq, who is responsible for the dairy sector. “The fact is that the farmer or artisan is not able to sell in supermarkets, because of their relatively small production. Logistics are also a problem, because of the size of Wallonia, but production is increasing, ” he says.
Around 20% of the cheese consumed by Belgians every year is from their own country. Apaq-W is running a TV and radio campaign, A Little Bit of Everything, which shows off the diversity of regional produce, and also organises a competition called The Best Cheeses in Wallonia in June at the Château de Harzé near Liège each May. The awards are open to all cheesemakers, be they farmers, artisans or industrial producers, who compete in 11 categories.
Selection for your cheeseboard
Ferme de Nizelles
Ferme le Bailli
Ferme du Vieux Moulin
Ferme des Grandes Fagnes
Fromagerie du Troufleur
Ferme des Sureaux
Fromagerie Biologique de Vielsalm
Fromagerie du Samson
Coopérative Fermière de Méan
Fromagerie du Gros Chêne
Chez Maitre Corbeau Fromagerie
Jacquy Cange, artisan refiner
This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine