Mon 11 May 2009
Back in January, Washington cheese-lovers got some alarming news. The price of Roquefort, that oh-so-rich-and-pungent French blue cheese, was slated to skyrocket due to a tripling of its import duties. Thankfully, negotiations concluded last week will spare the cheese from additional tariffs while tripling the amount of hormone-free American beef that will be allowed into the EU for sale. When we saw the tweet from FoodieTots (who also writes Cheese & Champagne), we were thrilled.
For those of us who enjoy the salty, spreadable delight in recipes and even on its own, the implication was unmistakable: a world without Roquefort. For Cheesetique propietor Jill Erber, it was even more than that. Roquefort has been a consistent seller in her shop, despite its already hefty price tag (due in part to a previously imposed 100% import duty). But these new tariffs would have effectively priced the cheese out of the market, making it far too expensive for retailers to sell it at a point where they could make a profit and still entice customers.
The situation was enough to move Erber to action. She wrote a response to the news and published it on her site’s Cheeselog, summing up with the thought “Protectionism is bad. Roquefort is good. Long live the latter.” But she didn’t stop there. As a ‘culinary protest,’ Erber promised to carry Roquefort at cost for as long as she was able to buy it. The pricey delicacy has been selling at $20/pound in Del Ray since January, and customers have been reaping the benefits. It was only a matter of time, she reasoned, until Roquefort joined unpasteurized Brie and Camembert among the delicacies that Americans just wouldn’t be able to experience, so we might as well enjoy it while it lasted.
Erber has continued to follow the saga of the blue cheese since January, celebrating the decision mid-March to delay the tariff’s original March 23rd implementation date by a month. On April 22nd (nothing like waiting until the last minute, guys), US Trade Representative Ron Kirk postponed the tariff again, this time to May 9th.
Finally, with the clock ticking down again last week, a preliminary agreement was reached. Although hormone-treated American beef still isn’t accepted by EU countries (the issue that caused us to respond with these threatened duties in the first place), the agreement allows for a three-fold increase in the amount of non-hormone-treated beef exported to Europe. The retaliatory tariffs that were scheduled to go into place on items like Roquefort, Spanish jamon iberico and Italian sparkling water wouldn’t have to happen after all.
We contacted the Cheese Lady herself to get her thoughts on the decision. She was celebratory, but thoughtful:
“I was thrilled to hear of the delay in the tariff increase for obvious financial and culinary reasons. However, the theoretical issue still looms large: while the threat of tariffs as international policy retaliation exists, our free choice is at stake. In this case, US bullying worked in our favor (more non-hormone meat purchased by Europe, tariffs delayed for US), but we cannot be sure of the same in the future. The end result is great news, but the method is still questionable. But for now, Roquefort lives to fight another day!”
There is a downside to this good news, of course. With Roquefort’s continued availability, there’s no way Cheesetique can afford to continue selling it at $20 a pound. Murray’s Cheese in New York retails it for $32.99 a pound, and other sellers’ online pricing consistently puts Le Papillon (the brand carried by Cheesetique) at more than $30 a pound. Don’t be surprised if Roquefort is that much harder to come by at Cheesetique for as long as their discount pricing lasts.
It’s not every day that a trade decision is cause for foodie celebration (in fact, the opposite is frequently the case), but this one is begging for it. Or maybe I’m just hungry after thinking about Roquefort, Spanish ham and San Pellegrino?