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Video case study : Pyrénées cheese/Etude de cas : vidéo sur la tomme des Pyrénées

Synthesis document commenting on the film: “from tomme cheese to tomme cheese”

Pascale Moity-Maïzi

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1In 2005, we conducted a study on the qualification processes of the productions in the Ariege region in France. This work was integrated within the framework of a multi-institutional research programme (CNEARC, CIRAD, INRA).

2The fieldwork that took place from the 21st to the 26th of March 2005 focused on the discovery of a qualifying procedure in progress, for Pyrenean dairy products (from cows and ewes): a claim for a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) from various producers of Tomme cheeses, for whom the term “Pyrénées” carries a collective qualifying dynamic; and the identification within the “territory” centred on the Ariege region of these Tomme cheeses, of local specificities and various interests, making it possible to distinguish notably cheeses made with unpasteurised milk, cheeses made with pasteurised milk, plain and mountain cheeses, organic cheeses, cheeses from ewe's, cow's or mixed milk, etc. These products' specificities refer, not only to commercial strategies for some of the actors, but also to production systems, to breeding techniques and to existing forms of organisations around cheese manufacture.

3Different actors within this traditionally dairy and cheese making region of the Pyrénées, are thus today involved in defending SEVERAL cheeses and ONE geographical space: breeder-cheese makers, dairies, dairy cooperatives, cheese factories, ripening cooperatives. All offer many types of dairy products (and several brands). Supported by a number of sponsoring organisations and associations, they form a negotiating group (Collectif) in order to build a joint procedure to obtain a PGI.

4Therefore the objectives of this study were:

  • to understand the motivations, interests and stakes of such a collective action (in a context of the reduction of dairy farms in the mountains);

  • to compare the pastoral and cheese-making specificities of the various manufacturers (industrial manufacturers, farmers,…) by indeed favouring an historical approach to the know-how, the techniques and the local forms of organisation, related to breeding and its dairy products;

  • finally, to understand the current dynamics related to this territorial action, particularly in terms of local development and co-operation between local actors, in an area of “deagriculturisation”.

5The general objective of the study was thus, to question the new forms of cooperation engaged in a procedure of differentiation of the products from a given territory, followed by the effects of this collective action in terms of local development. A 30-minute synthesis film based on the interviews carried out during the week of field work, was produced and shown to the people met during the research.

Territories and local development

6The territory concerned by this type of procedure necessarily comprises several “dimensions”:

  • a political dimension: it can be an administrative reality, delimited by natural and/or political borders

  • an organisational dimension: this territory can reflect the history of the settlements, but also the coordinations and strategic exchanges organised between various local economic and political actors,

  • a geographical and institutional dimension: this territory can be perceived as a specific space (mountainous area). This representation can be produced by an external professional group (scientists, technicians…) or by the users of the territory (shepherds, farmers), with “chain effects” on the perceptions: the territory being perceived as a constraint, for example, justifies a number of specific financial aids from the State, but can also involve differentiation procedures on behalf of the local actors, based on activities considered as suited to the site.

7Whatever dimensions are mobilised in the construction of an official differentiation or qualification procedure, the territory is a vector of co-operations (and conflicts), a stake of negotiations, all the more frequent in times of “crisis”.

8However, a differentiation procedure does not construct itself solely on the justified specification of a territory. The claim for a PGI for the dairy products in Ariege also creates a particular situation, in which an official label is created, here comprising various qualities and products (cow's, goat's, ewe's, or mixed milk cheeses; manufactured or farm cheeses). It is as such, an integrative initiative, that tends to reactivate, mobilise and bring various networks closer together, in order to build new cooperations, new solidarities, which are maybe also supposed to, at least, produce and spread an articulated and specific set of products, qualities and skills.

9The local development can thus be defined here as any new form of coordinations and co-operations produced on a given territory, mobilising a wide range of local and “cross-borders” networks, carried by a procedure or a qualifying official label.

10This last hypothesis led us to identify the various actors and networks “recruited” or called upon in the construction of the claim file for a PGI, in order also to evaluate these actors’ interests, their level of commitment in the request, to identify and finally understand the new coordinations, skills and (professional, territorial or political) identities, which this procedure allows them to (re)construct.

11This is what this film, based only on the words of the actors involved in this collective action, tries to show in just a few minutes.

Territories and dairy products of the Ariege mountains

12As for other “terroir” products, there is in France today, a (re)mobilisation in innovative valorisation dynamics for mountain dairy products. Being integrated into what we nowadays call the “living heritage”, they are at the crossroads of economic, social, cultural fields and biodiversity; valorised on diverse markets as specific “goods” they are also exploited as resources aiming at preserving and defending landscapes, plants, and animal varieties…

13Moreover, mountainous areas are perceived as strongly constraining environments benefiting for some decades from a good reputation, favourable to the valorisation of resources combining three dimensions: mountains, (fragile) living heritage, and biodiversity.

14The contrasts existing in a mountainous area between the plains, hillsides and peaks for example, with their respective climates, soils and seasons, also determine ecological and cultural niches, contributing to the variety of the so-called “mountain products”, especially in the sector of dairy products. These ecologically differentiated spaces are regularly referred to by the local actors during debates.

15In France, one of the main components of the mountainous ecosystems is grass, which thanks to its agronomic and topographic varieties and its dominant presence in the mountain flora, constitutes a crucial resource for the farmers. It is a strategic pivot, of the biodiversity management (Bérard, Marchenay, 1999).

16The abundance of grass generally explains the importance of breeding and cheese production in the French Pyrénées. With breeding systems given rhythm by the altitudes and seasons, breeders have never totally abandoned their seasonal transhumances, notably towards the upper meadows. If these streams of people and animals had slowed down, they are now reactivated, at least as the material and cultural symbols of a typically mountainous production: cheese manufacturing.

17Symbolising a rural heritage that builds a system (mountain, upper meadows, grass, breeding, cheeses), the transhumances resume and nowadays show to the visitors, that they influence not only the distinctive features of the processed products but also the life quality in the mountainous areas as well as their ecological balance… Visible in space, the transhumances, whatever their extent and frequency, determine territories, routes, borders between plains and peaks, between historical cultures, between collective and individual management schemes.

Items of the debate in a territorial qualifying procedure of mountain cheeses

18In the opinion of the local actors and more precisely the breeders, local development firstly needs a reconstruction of the breeding practice, considered as traditional. However, reconstructing this practice requires both command of the know-how related to the upper meadows and re-negotiation of the access to pasture lands, in locations often subjected to new environmental rules (Parks, Biosphere reserves).

19For these local actors, local development also requires a re-valorisation of some specific animal varieties and then through them, of the dairy products. Pyrenean cheeses are well known but as the historical archives state, their production has for a long time been limited to the domestic needs or to nearby small seasonal markets. The history of French mountainous agriculture also reveals that the rustic mountain varieties have been abandoned, hybridised to the extent that today they are not representative in some regions any more, such as in the Ariege region (The Ossau Iraty area, however, succeeds in having the specificity of its cheese partially based on the 'typicity' of its ewe varieties). In Ariege nowadays, native breeds are perceived as specific resources by some actors (breeders or institutions) to valorise the value of some local cheeses.

20However, the breeding activity in the mountains cannot be revalorised without raising a few problems: the fragility and the natural scarcity of land and resources readily demand livestock restriction and hence, the volumes of milk produced. Therefore, the commercial valorisation and the official territorial qualification of mountain cheeses require collective and critical thinking on the issue of the varieties and breeding productivity. Restricting the milk production following a logic of resources preservation and sustaining the exploitations, leads us to re-think some of the strategic operations of breeding: animal feeding and selection, routes, milk mixtures permissible for a type of cheese and some cheese manufacturing operations (ripening duration, etc.).

21All these factors are thus narrowly connected when it comes to valorising or qualifying mountain dairy products, as in the Ariege region.

22Moreover, the images chosen to qualify the Pyrenean cheeses, as well as the material supports for their qualification (varieties, techniques, natural resources) are never easy to define (or to choose) in a “Collectif” often scattered over a territory, that is itself contrasted. Several actors, and not only the breeders, engage in this qualifying procedure, toughening the local games and negotiations around patrimonial stakes: industrial manufacturers, subsidiaries of dairy or independent groups, technical and cultural State services, representatives of the territorial administration, locally elected representatives and scientists meet various types of local producers (cheese-making farmers, “artisanal” cheese makers, breeders, dairy firms), whose positions in the cheese supply chain are determined by specific constraints but also by economic, professional, ideological and ethical choices.

23This profusion of actors and organisations, by way of making the games and negotiations complex, mobilises and justifies various courses of action, of development, of practices and of discourse. It also leads quickly to a confusion in the objectives and the legitimate interests, sometimes ending in blockings or retrospective reactions of the collective action, notably among breeders and traditional cheese makers.

24This type of situation returns us to a central, critical issue: to whom do these landscape, professional, technical patrimonies finally belong and who can legitimately benefit from them? At the present time, the responses to this question, often contradictory and seldom consensual, open a debate, which cannot be avoided in the processes of territorial qualification: that of the appropriation, the procedural legitimacy and of the actors engaged in it.

25The construction of a first claim for a PGI, which has been rewritten and re-edited in order to establish a second one, is certainly a material translation of this debate, still in progress.

Claims for a PGI label for the Pyrenean Tomme cheese

26Before 1996, the Pyrenean Tomme cheese was still little known, the variety of mountain cheeses was very large, milk volumes were declining and the region was experiencing complete deagriculturisation.

27An association of manufacturers of Pyrenean cheese with untreated milk was created in 1996, the still existing Syndicat de défense du fromage des Pyrénées au lait cru (the name changed in 2000), to protect and promote this product, grouping together farmers and ‘artisanal’ producers.

28The industrial manufacturers of Tomme cheeses with black crust from pasteurised milk were the first to claim a PGI

29The motivation for this first claim for a PGI for ONE type of cheese by these manufacturers was the aspiration to reach new markets. So, the valorisation of the cheese production with pasteurised milk through a PGI is translating an ambition: getting (or widening) official access to international markets ruled, among others, by the Codex Alimentarius, which imposes pasteurisation as a standard in the international exchanges.

30The construction of a claim file for a PGI is thus also a creation of new markets, bearing exclusions if the standards which it defends are not widely shared.

31We can observe here, that the first request for a PGI, offensive on a commercial level for a group, can constitute for other groups (craftsmen), a total and rapid exclusion and the loss of their activity in the long term. This seems to be the starting position in the Ariege, readily denounced by the local trade associations. The creation of a PGI file is also a political construction (conflicting or negotiated), often dominated by leaders whose economic (or patrimonial) motivations are sometimes secondary with regard to political strategies.

32A second request was formulated, this time by the craftsmen and the breeders. After a categorical refusal by the manufacturers to modify the first PGI file, the situation is today evolving towards a compromise. In this negotiation, the Farmers Confederacy (Confédération paysanne) a strong presence in the Tomme Cheese Union (Fédération Tomme), seems to be the leader in this process, integrating the largest variety of dairy producers and cheese manufacturers. This second initiative leads to a reorganisation of the local actors around the qualifying procedure of the Pyrenean Tomme cheese: regrouping, federation of actors who kept their distance up to now, reinforcement of some local or national political networks (labour-unions, clientelist networks), and the exclusion of some of them… New social and professional configurations become institutionalised to communicate better, firstly between themselves, then with the arbitration authorities of the PGI, but also to protect their careers, products, networks and markets. The restructuring of the cheese making sector in this area of the Pyrénées is in fact more widely associated with a restructuring of all the dairy sector (cattle and ovine varieties) in the Ariege.

33The Pyrenean Tomme Cheese Federation demands a geographical protection in order to maintain the dairy production in these difficult mountainous areas, and the milk price for the producers. “Maintaining the number of dairy producers in the Pyrenean Massif is one of our priorities”. Requirements are thus different from those of the manufacturers for whom the PGI was an opportunity to strengthen the markets.

34We are here at the heart of the debates on the future of the local mountain products, of the food and professional heritage of this type of environment. The whole future of the “artisanal” cheese dairies is at stake in the negotiations and rules, defended in a GPI file and with them, the future of the economic fabric in the mountainous areas.

Some key actors of this procedure, of the debates and the film

  • André Bazergues, person in charge and founder of the first procedure of valorisation and defence of the Pyrenean Tomme cheese, member of the Fédération Tomme des Pyrénées, Confédération paysanne.

  • The Association pour le développement du Couserans (valley where the Tomme cheese manufacturing concentrates)

  • The Fédération Tomme des Pyrénées, which includes:
    The Association of the farmers and artisanal cheese-makers of the Pyrénées (AFFAP, Association des fromagers fermiers et artisanaux des Pyrénées)
    The Union of the farmer producers 64 (Union des producteurs fermiers 64)
    The Association Les Fromagers Pyrénéens (AFP). This one would have deposited (and this is a compulsory prerequisite to all GPI steps) a specification of requirements for a certification of conformity “Pyrenean Tomme cheese with untreated cow's milk”. This association is considered to be the “leading group” of the “pasteurised pyrenean cheese” GPI.
    The Fédération was created in 2002. It groups together all the professional “families”: delivering producers, farmer producers, processors, manufacturers, craftsmen, ripeners.
    Its mission: “carrying and orientating the specific procedure of Pyrenean Tomme cheese production with untreated milk, towards an official quality label and a PGI for the Pyrénées Massif”.

  • Breeders delivering milk

  • Breeding- and cheese-making farmers,

  • Processors

  • The Faup and Domenc families: we have here a dense and specialised family network, crucial in the current evolutions and procedures of the production of Tomme cheeses with untreated milk. These craft family lineages are nowadays industrial and defend “standard” products. They have just entered the debates.

  • Syndicat de défense du fromage des Pyrénées au lait cru created in 1998, with the craftsmen of Couserans (Faup), the AFFAP and the Accous Co-operative

  • Chambre Régionale d’Agriculture de Midi Pyrénées

  • Institut Technique Français du Fromage

  • Maisons du Goût

  • GIS Fromagers Pyrénées.


35The situation observed in Ariege reflects a phase of the collective revival of a traditional “range of cheese products”. Now the “situations of reviving traditional cheeses offer a particularly rich ground for observation, not only of the technical transfers taking place on this occasion, but also of the social conditions of the production of a specific ‘regional’ or ‘traditional’ quality, according to an historical or a geographical anchorage. How do the products come back to life?” (Delfosse, Letablier, 1999: 161). We have tried to illustrate this issue here, by taking into account the variety of the local cheese productions, all the producers' types and the local institutions involved in a debate about a claim for a GPI.

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Electronic reference

Pascale Moity-Maïzi, « Synthesis document commenting on the film: “from tomme cheese to tomme cheese” », Anthropology of food [Online], S2 | March 2007, Online since 04 May 2007, connection on 23 June 2018. URL :

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About the author

Pascale Moity-Maïzi

Anthropologue, Montpellier SupAgro/Institut des Régions Chaudes. maizi(at)cnearc[point]fr

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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