Monthly interview February: Bernard Antony

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Maître Bernard Antony. By courtesy of Bernard AntonyBernard Antony, born 1943, is one of the world’s best-known cheese specialists. In the early 1980’s, motivated and inspired by his Maître (Cheese Master) Pierre Androuët, he began to make and refine cheese at the highest level. His concept of, and his weakness for, the „Affinage“ (refinement) of cheese would make him world-famous just a few years later. Cheese fancier, Dr. Otto von Habsburg and Bernard Antony formed a close friendship. Prince Albert of Monaco is one of many famous personalities who belong to Maître Antony’s circle of friends. Every now and then a helicopter will land behind his house in F-Vieux-Ferrette (Sundgau) to pick up cheese for his upscale clientele. The cheese is made from the best raw milk from reliable suppliers, all of whom Antony calls his friends. This, combined with skilful “Affinage”, has resulted in over 100 types of consummate cheese specialities, treasured by over 70 Star-Chefs (19 3-star, 29 2-star and 30 1-star restaurants.) In 2008, for his merits in cheese and the French agricultural industry, Bernard Antony was awarded the «Ordre Nationale du Mérite» which goes back to the time of General de Gaulle and is one of the highest honours awarded in France. In his interview with Christian Düblin, Maître Antony tells how a small cheese and milk business became a pilgrimage site for the finest cheeses and what contribution Prince Charles made to raw milk cheese.

Christian Dueblin: Maître Antony, cheese was one of the greatest export products of the Celts and Alemanni. Certainly this cheese would meet many of your quality requirements today. The Celtic cheese was made from raw milk and there was no silage or chemical fertilizers. In your professional opinion, would this cheese make it into a Michelin-Star-Kitchen today?

Maître Antony: (Laughs) Yes, it’s true that people have made cheese for many thousands of years. Maître Pierre Androuët wrote about it. In his texts on cheese, he mentioned that Hammurabi spoke of cheese almost 4000 years ago in ancient Bablyon. I am convinced that the Celtic cheeses would be very popular today and would indeed be served in upscale restaurants.

For over 3 decades you have been involved in the cheese making business and today you can pick and choose your clientele. What were the most important stages in your cheese career: steps that proved greatly important to you and your business?

1979 was very important for me. It was then that I made the acquaintance of Maître Pierre Androuët, who became my master in the art of cheese-making and cheese-refinement. He was very intelligent and after his Baccalaureate degree he became an architect at twenty. Then he took over his father’s cheese business in Paris.

Could one say, in today’s management jargon, that Maître Androuët was your mentor?

Yes, most definitely. He was my Cheese Master and taught me so very much. I met him through an industrialist that knew him. His name is Francois Schmidlin. He lent me money in 1971, so that I could start up my business. He saw early on that the future of industrial cheese was bleak and he had the feeling that Pierre Androuët and I might hit it off very well. Shortly after, Pierre Androuët visited me here in Vieux-Ferrette. It was immediately clear that Francois Schmidlin had been right and Pierre Androuët became, not only my role model and master, but also a good friend.

Cheese counter at Vieux Ferrette

Cheese counter at Vieux-Ferrette

How would you describe your relationship with Maître Androuët?

The relationship to my mentor and master is very difficult to describe. It would be as difficult as trying to describe love. Pierre Androuët realized that I wanted to learn something and that I work with a great deal of passion. He liked that. I owe a debt of gratitude not only to him, but also to my deceased wife. You need to realize that everything was very difficult in the beginning. Incidentally, there were also journalists that supported me already from the start. In Switzerland, these were Hanns Ulrich Christen and minu. In Germany, it was Wolfram Siebeck and in France Louis Wadel. All of these people supported me and believed in me. At that time, I sold my cheese at many farmer’s markets and more and more clients came to Vieux-Ferrette. You could say that a social network was formed all around cheese.

You were very good friends with Dr. Otto von Habsburg, the Archduke of Austria and royal Prince of Hungary. Powerful people who can afford it, even have their cheese picked up by helicopter. What were the biggest steps that proved determining factors in your becoming so famous?

One big step was certainly meeting Mr. Alain Ducasse, the famous French 3-star chef. I began to supply him with cheese. Then followed Mr. Alain Passard and Mr. Pierre Gagnaire, both also excellent 3-star chefs. And so it continued. Interestingly, I was never asked to supply cheese from the Alsace, where I work and where I come from. Today, I supply cheese to Baerenthal to the 3-star restaurant L’Arnsbourg.

The fact that very famous chefs were interested in my cheeses, and that there were journalists who recognized the quality of my cheese and my work, led to my becoming known the world over. Today I deliver cheeses world-wide: to New York, Asia, Moscow and Lebanon. And I was just in Oman where they wanted to have some of my cheese. (laughs)

The majority of cheeses that are consumed today, are industrial cheeses. What is your opinion of these products, which compared to the quality of yours and similar products, are so much worse?

Both worlds have to exist and every person has the choice. I am often shocked by what things people in the supermarket put into their carts. I wouldn’t buy nor eat most of that. However, just as on the street, we find both Ferraris and simple cars, people in our society can buy this or that product. Only a few people, however, can afford to live at a very high standard in every way. Some people put a high value on good cheese, others love good cigars or expensive whisky. Every person is free to do what he wants within his means. C’est la choix de la vie!

Is cheese for you also a symbol to protest against the mainstream and the creeping levelling of so many things down to average?

Perhaps there is indeed something like that behind my work. I enjoy what I do very much and I am pleased to see that the same is true of my son, Jean-Francois and my wife also enjoyed cheese. Incidentally, I am not saying that all industrial cheese is bad. On the contrary, it is often technically perfectly made. But, as I said, even buying cheese is a „choix de la vie“.

Bernhard Antony and Dr. Otto von Habsburg. <br>
By courtesy of Bernard Antony

Bernard Antony and Dr. Otto von Habsburg.
By courtesy of Bernard Antony

By the way, I am constantly amazed how much food is thrown away. I was told once in a palace where I was working once, that 30% of the buffet would land in the garbage can. In the past, at least they gave the rests to the pigs, cats and dogs. During my grandfather’s time this was very common and the food could still be somewhat sensibly utilized. But to just throw it away, I find truly alarming and I do not like this development at all. In my opinion, it would be better to buy less, but pay attention to good quality: then probably less would end up in the garbage can.

Your choice of suppliers, who you also call friends, is absolutely vital. How does one become your friend, when they make cheese and want to supply you?

I ask potential suppliers to send me a series of cheese probes that I place in my cellar to observe their development. I always pay for these samples. I never accept cheese as „échantillons“ or free samples. I have principles that are important to me and which I have always held onto. If I like the results, I buy more of this cheese. One has to keep in mind that cheese is a living product. Like wine, it can happen that a series of cheese is not good, but the next is brilliant. I, myself, sell about 100 types of cheese. I am always open to new types of cheese.

Do you also buy cheese from Switzerland?

My first client in Switzerland was the Restaurant Teufelhof in Basel. Meanwhile I also sell Gruyère-cheese from Switzerland. Mr. Philippe Rochat and Mr. Hans-Peter Reust called my attention to a cheese producer in Switzerland whose cheese is now part of my range of products.

In the past there were also obstacles that you were able to overcome. I am thinking of a plan on the part of the French government in 1992. They wanted to prohibit the use of raw milk in the production of cheese nationwide. The reason was a panic about the Listeria bacteria. Prince Charles got involved in the debate at that time and, apparently, it is thanks to him that the plan was abandoned. How do you remember that time?

Here you see a photo of Mr. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the president of France at that time. He and Prince Charles each played a large role in that affair. In Switzerland people died from consuming cheese and, because of the many media reports about it, they wanted to prohibit the use of raw milk in cheese production. The truth was that one person who died was anorexic. She ate two Epoisses. In this case it was a „fromage lavé“. The surface, where Listeria can be found, is specially treated. In addition, the person drank wine and smoked cigarettes. She probably didn’t die from Listeria bacteria, but rather due to her lifestyle. Today every cheese maker must endeavour to produce good cheese and comply with strict safety regulations. Listeria has always been found in cheese. The tolerance today is very small. You would probably have to eat 100 kilograms of cheese with these tolerance values to die from Listeria bacteria. Prince Charles, as a great advocate of traditional production in agriculture and a great cheese fancier, got involved in the debate and contacted the government in writing. I also received this letter and showed it to my friends and also to politicians and industrialists.

In the end it came to a legendary Buffet that generated a great deal of media attention.

Yes, you could say that. Mr. Huber, the president of the „Syndicat du Munster“ at the time, organized a cheese buffet in the parliament of Strassburg to which many famous people were invited and which should show that the consummation of raw-milk cheese was nothing bad. I also attended the buffet and I telephoned the office of Mr. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and asked him to attend as well. At first they told me he didn’t have time. I answered that I didn’t have the time either, but he must come (laughs). I said that because the whole affair was of greatest importance to French agriculture. Shortly afterwards my wife came in the cheese cellar and said Mr. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was on the phone. Now, I wasn’t sure if she was joking, but he really was on the phone and in the end, he also came to the buffet. I still keep in touch with Mr. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing today.

Ferrette and Vieux-Ferrette, where you live and where your family comes from were long under the rule of the Habsburger and the Grimaldis. Today you supply these families with cheese. How do you personally feel about this irony of fate?

Yes, I do have to smirk a bit about that. Prince Albert of Monaco is a great fancier of my cheese and was here many times in Vieux-Ferrette. Dr. Otto von Habsburg, sadly, has passed away. I was able to attend his burial as part of the family. Both men were even here together in 2006 to do a cheese tasting and to eat here.

Bernard Antony and Prince Albert of Monaco. By courtesy of Bernard Antony

Bernard Antony and Prince Albert of Monaco.
By courtesy of Bernard Antony

The Grimaldis are still formally connected to this region. They are referred to as „Comtes de Ferrette“, in English “counts of Ferrette”, in German “Grafen von Pfirt”. Pfirt is the Alemannic name for Ferrette. The connection between Ferrette and the Grimaldis has to do with the story of Mazarin, who played a major role here. When his cousin married a member of the house of Grimaldi, the heredity title passed to the Grimaldi family. Prince Albert once told me that he carries the title „Comte de Ferrette“ with great respect and I thanked him heartily for that.

You yourself have recently been promoted to the nobility. In 2008, you were awarded the «Ordre Nationale du Mérite» by the French agricultural minister at the time, Mr. Michel Barnier, a type of accolade for outstanding achievements for France.

The commendation was introduced by General Charles de Gaulle. Many actors, musicians, politicians and intellectuals have been honoured with it. One has to be nominated for this prize. One day, two policemen came by to tell me that I was to be awarded with this prize. You can’t ask why you are getting this award. Naturally, I received the award in connection with cheese and therefore also make a contribution to the thriving of our agriculture. I received the award in Paris.

Maître Bernhard Antony erhält den "Ordre Nationale du Mérite" von Michel Barnier. By courtesy of Bernard Antony

Bernard Antony receives the "Ordre Nationale du Mérite" by Michel Barnier.
By courtesy of Bernard Antony

Maître Antony, what are your wishes for cheese and for you personally in the future?

I work very closely with my son Jean-Francois. He was just now in Washington and in Thailand to make buffets with cheese. He does it differently from me, simply in his own way and I appreciate and I like that. This year he is also going to Taiwan. It would please me a great deal if one day his children would follow his footsteps and in mine.

For cheese, I hope that the consumers will see that many agricultural products, not only cheese, are being sold for too low a price. The costs of the production of good and high-quality agricultural products are higher than the price that the consumer is willing to pay. This is also true for the marketing of Alpine cheese. I wish that farmers could ask a proper price for quality and that the consumer could recognize and appreciate its value.

Maître Antony, I thank you very much for your excellent cheeses, that I have had the good fortune of eating since childhood, and I wish you and your family good health and continued enjoyment with the “Affinage” of cheese!

(C) 2013 by Christian Düblin. All rights reserved. Other publications require the author’s explicit consent.

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