The thieves made off with 100 ‘wheels’ – the equivalent of four tonnes – of Comté cheese after targeting a renowned producer in eastern France, near the Swiss border last week.
They cut through a barbed wire fence in the middle of the night and broke into the Napiot dairy, in Goux-les-Usiers, before loading up a lorry with the luxury cheeses, which weigh around 90lb each.
Retailing at up to £28.50 per kilogram, Comté is as valuable as jewellery and electrical goods to thieves and sells well on the black market.
A police source said demand is high at this time of year among consumers, especially in the run up to Christmas.
Officers have nicknamed the thieves the ‘meules’ or millstone gang – referring to the flat circular wheels in which Comté is produced – and said they had struck several times in recent months.
‘The newspapers are calling it a record theft, but there have been at least two other thefts of similar quantities of cheese in recent times,’ the source said. ‘The cheesemakers decided not to make their misfortune public.’
Made exclusively with the milk of Montbéliarde or French Simmental cows, Comte has a distinctive nutty, sweet flavour.
Like Champagne, Roquefort and other fine French wines and cheeses, it has an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) certification.
This means it is derived from a particular region – Franche-Comte, in eastern France – and its quality is strictly monitored.
Any sub-standard batch cannot be sold under the Comté name and instead cheese that fails to make the grade is labelled as the less distinguished Gruyère variety.
Many cheesemakers have resorted to CCTV and motion sensors in a bid to halt the rising number of rural thefts in France.
Claude Vermot-Desroches, head of the cheese’s trade body Comité Interprofessionnel de Gestion du Comté, said it would be hard to sell the stolen cheese to legitimate retailers, so much must be making its way onto a black market.
‘Shops are obliged to keep documentation showing the provenance and quality of cheeses … and certificates of sale,’ Mr Vermot-Desroches said. ‘There must be an illicit distribution network.’
Each ‘wheel’ has its producer’s mark embedded in the rind but Mr Vermot-Desroches said market traders often cut Comté into wedges before displaying it, removing the maker’s label.