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Bringing Cheese Back

Hello All,

I am going to go back to the US for a visit and I would like to bring back the gift of French Cheese. You have been so kind as to give me your opinions as to what to try and where to get it. Now I am curious about your experiences with traveling with it. The US customs site is a little vague stating " Hard cured cheese such as parmesan or cheddar are generally admissible, soft cheeses such as brie and soft curd cheese and cheese in water (ricotta, feta, etc.) are not." Have you had any experience with the "generally" aspect? How should I best pack it? Are there some types that travel better than others? I head that some fromagiers will vacuum pack permissible cheeses. My best friend in the world is having a cheese tasting party on the day I get back and I would love to bring something good. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance!

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  1. Skip down to the third to the last paragraph in the post which I am linking: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6053... I just brought back four kilos of cheese from Italy to the U. S. All of it was vacuum packed where I bought it. All of it survived perfectly. None of it triggered any kind of alarm or hungry dog at the port of entry, Dulles airport. Included in this was Reggiano, gorgonzola dolce (a triple creme), a double creme, several hard cheeses AND proscuitto. If it is properly vacuum packed you should not have a problem.

    1. My comment probably won't help you, but recently, I returned to Chicago from Paris and brought cheese with me. Air France had no objection, and the customs officials in Chicago, when I declared the cheese, waved me thru without bothering to look.

      Other chowhounds who travel more often will give you better advice, but I would hope that the officials would be reasonable in whichever city you're visiting.

      1. I always bring stuff in. Declaring it is asking for troubles, though no one ever had some. The real question is what cheese travel well, and there, I would advise that you trust your cheese shop. The Saint Nectaire I brought last time travelled perfectly. Contrariwise to popular belief, hard cheeses, who need to breathe and don't like temperature changes, do not travel so well (try Comté in Franche-Comté one day -- it tastes different).

        1. There's some minimum amound of aging required for unpasteurized cheeses, and I think fresh cheeses and other dairy products like ricotta are not allowed. If you just tell them it's aged cheese (if they even ask), you shouldn't have any problems.

          As for declaring, I'd use your judgement. Oftentimes there is a very long line to get through normal customs, and a couple of bored officials with nothing to do staffing the agricultural line. Even if I'm not going to be taking anything else, I've taken to bringing some confit de canard or pâté on trips to the US, just to jump over to the short agricultural line.

          Oh, and I'm with souphie about the soft cheeses vs hard ones. That said, a slice of mimolette would be a good idea, even if it does suffer a bit, just to stand out among the other cheeses, looking like a slice of melon.

          1. Two or three times a year I bring back 2-4 cheeses, maybe 2 kilos worth. Usually it comes from Alléosse, which does not have a vacuum packing machine. Sometimes I get cheese from different fromagers who do pack sous vide. I have never had any problem or delay at customs, and I always declare the cheese.

            Years ago, the Dept. of Agriculture person at Chicago customs said there is no problem with cheese unless -- maybe -- it`s really smelly. She said that on the front page of the declaration form, where it asks if you have fruit, meat, dairy, or food, to say no. On the back of the form, where you list your purchases, do declare it. The front page is for stuff this is fresh or raw, was her explanation. The back page is for declaring anything at all that you purchased and are bringing back.

            I have always followed this advice. For example, when I cleared at Dulles a couple of weeks ago, the agent read my declaration and said: 'Sweets and cheeses; anything else?" I said no and he waved me through.

            Having said that, here are two cautions: First, I think the comment about cheeses in liquids is well taken. The liquid will make it look raw, so I'd probably avoid ricotta, feta in brine, etc.

            Second, soft cheese should never be taken as carry on. It isn't customs who will stop you. It's security. It's like a gel - could easily conceal an explosive.

            1. Vacuum pack is good, Dubois, Bartheleme, and many others have the machine. l always travel with ziploc bags, and for a stinky a triple wrap blocks any aroma and dog interest. Supposedly they would wrap drugs in cheese so the dogs would not smell it and thus when a dog now smells cheese it can be an interesting few minutes for the carrier. If getting something very soft and have a choice get one in a box, prevents squishing. Many of the best products no longer imported into US or rest of EU, for that matter, are the Loire valley chevres. The Belgians in charge changed the rules and the French would not stop au lait cru, so no longer exported. So things like Selles sur cher, or Pouligny St Pierre, or even Clacbitou, a Burgundian wonderful chevre, can be brought back. Any product from other than France should not be brought or for my thought even bought, as the tariffs are so high, they become more expensive than here.

              14 Replies
              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                "The Belgians in charge changed the rules and the French would not stop au lait cru, so no longer exported" - I don't believe that statement is correct, to my knowledge unpasteurised cheese made from raw milk is still widely available across the EU, it is definitely available in the UK where we get lots of French unpasteurised cheese as well as supporting a growing local cheese industry with many unpasteurised varieties, and there are no personal import restrictions in moving food from one country to another (Note: the UK loves following EU Health and Safety legislation so if it was law it would be definitely implemented here!).

                As a non-US resident it intrigues me that your border controls on food are so variable, in Australia (my home) they are very strict with no-ambiguity. I also understood that the rules are in place to stop animal rather than human diseases, pests and pathogens spreading i.e. Foot and Mouth disease in cattle. I also thought the customs dogs were trained for either drugs or food not both, I thought a dogs nose was sensitive enough to smell drugs through coffee or cheese.

                I would also emphasise RandyB's comment on carrying cheese in hand baggage. Whilst the carry-on rules specify gels and liquids I err on the side of caution and put all my cheese in my hold bags, which I vacuum pack to ensure my clothes don't come out cheesy.

                1. re: PhilD

                  This info came from three of my US suppliers who are also importers. Apparently the rules are variable at best. What l have seen in states are changes that are very dramatic. The only Epoisses we now get is Berthault who went to thermalised milk when all this started on all his products, Epoisses or whatever else, no Loire farmed raw chevres. Products we used to see occasionally, as Brie de Melun, no more. Only raw Vacherin Mont d' Or now seen is from Switzerland. French is thermalized. Older than 6 months, no problem with raw, but suppliers say availability for younger raw products that used to be a wink, wink, nudge, nudge market is no longer there. Am not familiar with what is happening in England.

                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                    I used the UK as an example to illustrate the point that there isn't a EU law that stops the production of raw milk cheese nor the movement of the cheese across internal EU borders, nor the export of the cheese.

                    I suspect the issue with supply from France to the US is caused by at least these three reasons (but not EU bureaucrats) :

                    1. FDA regulations that bans the import of unpasteurised cheese less than 60 days old

                    2. US tariff barriers i.e. the 300% import tax on Roquefort in response to the EU ban on hormone treated US beef.

                    3. Industrial cheese companies buying small producers and changing manufacture to pasteurised because the product is more stable/predictable, less skill is needed, and the health and safety checks during manufacture less involved (and cheaper). The result is far less product volume and variety. The supply problems of getting AOC Camembert illustrate this with fewer and fewer traditional producers surviving.

                    Visitors to France should be aware of the last point when buying cheese. Many shops and supermarkets have spectacular displays of a broad variety of great looking French cheese. However, a lot of the cheese these days is mass produced and nothing like the real thing i.e. it is pasteurised. Head for a reputable cheese shop (most are mentioned on the board) as these specialist suppliers still sell unpasteurised cheese, and most have maturation rooms to make certain it is top quality when sold.

                    One further piece of advice, if you are bringing cheese home let the shop know when you intend to eat it. A good shop will select a less mature cheese that will ripen as it travels ensuring it is in good condition when you get home. That said I know of a shops that won't recommend much to be in reasonable condition for more than 4 to 5 days after purchase.

                    1. re: PhilD

                      No the problem is not with the US. If you read my post, l said the suppliers were not offered the product anymore. There used to be many channels to bring anything in you wished. This is no longer available. Was and still am getting 6 manufacturers of Roquefort, including 2 rarely seen in France, thus that was incorrect as well.
                      Your third point addresses the situation. A leading manufacturer of Camembert has applied for AOC status for thermalized milk in response to the pressure from the EU for non au lait cru product. It is expected to pass, thus your #3 may come to fruition to the detriment of all.

                      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                        Tricky to argue some of these points because you obviously have faith n your suppliers. My experience as an EU resident is different - unpasteurised cheese flows across borders

                        I also didn't say you couldn't import Roquefort - I simply said the import duty was rising to 300% i.e, it was going to get very expensive as it is a US tariff barrier.

                        On my third point, I believe you have misunderstood the issue. The industrial (do you really mean leading?) manufacturers of Camembert are trying to change the AOC rules to allow the use of thermalised/pasteurised milk. The AOC rules for Cambembert specify raw milk as it gives the unique flavour etc. Large industrial manufacturers want AOC classification changed to allow for pasteurised milk because it is easier and cheaper to produce, and ultimately produces a more consistent/ standard product (that lasts longer) and so is suitable for export and the very large domestic supermarket market....and of course if they can put AOC on a factory rather than artisan product they can charge a premium and increase profits.

                        This may seem an esoteric argument to many readers but it is important. Many French traditional food products are under threat from large industrial multinationals. The AOC system of classifying products based on their production methods and ingredients is one way to retain traditional flavours/products in France. Thus it is worth looking out for when you buy food in France.

                        1. re: PhilD

                          The downside of emulating the "superpower" that is America.
                          I forgot the upside.
                          Why have standards when 5 guys can make 4 pennies more to throw on their heaps of money that they do not use anyway.
                          Very distressing about lowering the bar of AOC. You are very correct, PhilD, about how terrible it is.

                          1. re: PhilD

                            D'Isigny is the company, very large and until recently an excellent product. While the argument may be esoteric, it is as you say very important to those who care. Granted we are becoming less and less important but we will mourn the loss. D'Isigny Camembert in US or France now is thick, gloppy, and totally without character. Shops l am associated with in US now refuse to carry it, but the supermarkets do, and they sure sell a hell of a lot more than l do.

                            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                              The argument is only esoteric if you are satisfied with good, not great cheeses. I'm in the good, not great, group when it comes to wine because I simply cannot or won't pay high prices for a bottle of wine. But with cheese I can indulge myself with great cheese by simply buying a small quantity at a time. (I know, some cheeses and shops have minimums.)

                              1. re: RandyB

                                My mother just visited me in Paris two weeks ago and brought back a bunch of cheese through D.C. She declared it, and they didn't care at all (oddly enough, they only thing they wouldn't let her bring back was a tin can of beef bourgogne???).
                                She brought back a roquefort, a basque bleu cheese, a hard sheep's cheese and something else, I can't remember. Some was pasteurized, some wasn't. They didn't even check.
                                To be honest, I don't know how the overworked custom's agents would even know which cheese is what - it's not like it's labeled, and how would they know to identify some obscure French cheese and know whether or not it's been aged for the proper time, made with raw milk, etc? They wouldn't.

                                1. re: anakalia

                                  The beef is a mad cow risk.

                                  I never had a problem bringing back cheese from the EU. I've always declared it. I would NOT take the chance of not declaring it as advised above. The risk of a fine or more isn't worth it. I'd rather have my cheese taken away because it wasn't permissible than pay the price of being dishonest.

                      2. re: Delucacheesemonger

                        actually, unless they've chaged the rules back, all of the swiss Vacherin mont d'or is pasturized, that's now part of the official recipe. The reason the French stuff isn't being imported is as I recall due to a nasty outbreak of listerosis back in the early 80's, which spooked the USDA so badly that they banned importation off all raw milk Vacherin,regardless of its age (In a final irony, the Listeria was eventually traced back to Swiss pasturized Vacherin, but the ban stayed up). Even if it wasn't there I'm not sure if raw milk Vacherin mon't d'or would be allowed in the US under the current rules (at the time of the mentioned ban, the rules simply prohibited the importation into the US of any raw-milk cheese aged less than 60 days, but I I have been informed correctly the rules were later made ven more restrictive, so that now all "soft" cheeses imported into the US have to be pasturized regardless of age)

                        1. re: jumpingmonk

                          Florida importer as of 2 years ago imported Rolf Beeler Swiss Vacherin Mont D'or, that was au lait cru, All French stuff that comes in now is ' thermalyzed ' which is supposedly low heat pasteurization, but leaves the cheese boring and gloppy at best. If you want to try a vacherin in name only the classic example is what the boys at Whole Paycheck brings in. Same process that Isingy uses for their now characterless Camembert.

                          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                            I HAVE tried that version. I though it disgusting, but then again after a few tries of the "season-free" Vacherins (like L'edel de Cleron) I came to the conculsin that it it likey I just don't like Mont d'or much, (I find the taste imparted by the bark too bitter for my taste.)

                    2. re: Delucacheesemonger

                      At Alléosse last Thursday they told me they don't like vacuum packing, because the cheese can't breathe. They use a sturdy foil wrap instead, which they said to be sure to remove immediately upon my return home. I bought about 10 cheeses there of various types, and all survived the trip in good shape, although it's admittedly only a two-hour flight to Oslo.

                    3. "Generally admissible" is as close as they're ever going to get to telling you, officially, "no problem". Because it's always at their discretion, and if they had the time and resources, they would inspect everyone's bags and make a decision about every single item. And I don't think they say that soft cheeses are inadmissible, but "regulated". If you dig around on their website you might be able to find specific policies about specific cheeses from France, but they are always subject to change.

                      The vacuum packing is a good idea for your own convenience, but it won't fool the dogs. Assuming that the dogs are even trained to look for cheese. (I think they have higher priorities.)

                      Anyway, the point is not to sneak the cheese through Customs. It's food; you have to declare it. Even if you "know" it's OK. And if you think it might not be OK, that's all the more reason to declare it and let them decide.

                      1. I know this is an old(er) thread, but since it popped up, I just wanted to add that there is some *very* bad advice on this thread. Customs regulations have legal consequences, and anecdotal "evidence" -- including stories about what other people have brought in with no problem -- and "someone told me it was okay on the internet" are not going to be worth much if you get caught with contraband.

                        Instead of asking people on the internet, you should check the US Customs and Dept. of Agriculture websites, and if you have any questions, you should ask them. Otherwise, you risk at best confiscation of your goods, and at worst, not only a fine, but having your passport flagged in their system so you get looked at more closely every time you re-enter the US.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I have had the quite opposite experience from most of those replying here. In June 2010, the day before leaving Paris, my son and I bought a variety of cheeses, hard and soft, from a market near Gare du Nord. We had them vaccum packed with several varieties in each package, for gift giving. Upon arriving in Anchorage, customs perfunctorily confiscated all of it, declaring it a threat to the U.S. dairy or cattle industry. Gone, all of it, to be destroyed that evening. While the customs official was very nice and cordial, the decision was quick and final.

                          1. re: Alaska2010

                            Just speculating, but I suspect mixing the soft cheeses with the aged cheeses was the issue. The soft cheeses are generally a no-no, since most of them aren't more than 60 days old, and by putting them in the same vacuum package they may have considered everything in the package unsafe.

                            1. re: Alaska2010

                              There are two types of customs officers that may interview you on return at borders. The most common are the ATF people, who are concerned with alcohol and tobacco and at one point comprised over 80% of officers. This was due to 911 and events following as they are far more trained in weaponry and perhaps terroristic activities. The remainder are from the Dept of Ag and are more concerned with animal and food experiences and imports. l have watched an ATF guy go through a returning resident's luggage and had no issue with meat products but was vigilant with his cigars. Maybe l am lucky but never met an AG guy and hope never do. This might have been your situation.

                              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                I've often seen Agriculture agents wander through the baggage claim area, before you even get to Customs, with food-sniffing dogs. Once I watched them take a banana away from a very embarrassed woman who had it in her purse. But that's more understandable, all sorts of nasty little critters can smuggle their way in on fresh produce.

                                1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                  If you think American Ag agents are scary, you should try taking any kind of meat, dairy or produce, even some wood products, into Chile or into the Argentine portion of Patagonia. They screen everything, both by x-ray and by hand, and there were four sniffer dogs in the screening area outside baggage claim in the airport in Santiago.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    Argentina is difficult, but my record for worst customs interviews is Darwin, Australia. All international flights arrive @ Midnight-2 AM and no connectings leave before 6 in AM, thus they empty your toothpaste tubes, etc. it was endless. No wood was the least of the issues. Australia makes you clear customs/agriculture when you fly from east coast, e.g. Melbourne to west coast, e.g.Perth

                                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                      Australia quarantine is pretty tough with all bags X-rayed for food and sniffer dogs for all international flights. But it isn't correct to say domestic passengers clear customs/agriculture, it is true there are bins to dispose of fruit etc. as like California there is a real fear that introduced fruit fly can be devastating to local agriculture.

                                      1. re: PhilD

                                        Right, it isn't customs, but there can be agricultural inspections on domestic flights. A well-known example is agricultural inspection before leaving Hawaii. Also, as I mentioned above, agricultural inspection between airports in Patagonia and other parts of Argentina.

                                        It's not just fruit flies in California. There are two species of moths and two citrus pests that are currently causing problems.