By Tatiana Pietrzak
True Camembert is a small soft-rind bloomy cheese made in the northern region of France called Normandy. The region boarders on the English Channel (French: La Manche). Its terrain is lush and green. A good place to raise grass-fed cows. Cows here are prodigious grazers and producers of milk. Traditional practices for making the cheese use raw milk (au lait cru), whereas many imitations are pasteurized (heat-treated) to prevent unwanted bacterial growth.
Only five departments still make Camembert in the traditional way. Ironically none of these are in the town of Camembert. The farms only age the cheese for sixteen days and so it is illegal in the US. Raw milk cheeses must be aged a minimum of sixty days to dry the moisture which inhibits unwanted bacterial growth for it to be imported into the US. The best place to try true Camembert is by taking a trip to France! Make sure to find the V.C.N stamp on the cheese (Véritable Camembert de Normandie). This will also ensure that it is handmade (hand-ladled).
History and Legend
Contrary to legend, Camembert was not invented by Marie Harel in 1791. Legend has it that a priest from Brie, Abbé Charles-Jean Bonvoust, fled from the French Revolution (beginning in 1789). He sought refuge at Marie’s farm in Camembert. In exchange for his safety, he gave her a secret to the recipe for making cheese.
An American doctor prescribed the cheese to people with digestive problems. The sufferers wanted to express their gratitude by erecting a statue to the inventor. The Mayor of Camembert saw Mary Harel’s name in a Norman archive in 1859 and attributed the cheese to first being made on her farm.
More accurately, in the Vimoutiers parish archives, Camembert was already highly regarded in 1680. It was first believed to be a blue cheese and then obtained its present-day characteristics after Marie Harel’s death. However, she did produce it on a larger scale and increased its popularity.
The 19th century brought about the advent of the railroad (circa 1850). This enabled the cheese to be transported to Paris and all of France. In 1890, engineer M. Ridel invented wafer-thin, round wooden boxes that allowed for world-wide transport. These boxes helped the cheese not lose its shape or be damaged. The cheese was fed to soldiers during WWI as part of their official war rations, making Camembert a national symbol of France.
Museum and Titles
In 1986 the Museum of the Camembert was set up from donations from cheese cellars of old families in the region. In 1983, AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) was granted. Its bicentennial was celebrated in 1991. And 1992 it was given POD (Protected Designation of Origin) finally. Today, four million wheels of the authentic Camembert de Normandie per year are made.
Currently, imitation Camembert is made in Denmark, Germany, US (California, Ohio, Texas), Czech Republic, Slovakia, UK, and New Zealand. They are all made with mesophilic bacteria and ripened from the outside in with Penicillium camemberti. The containers are usually made from poplar. All marry well with fruit, jams, Pinot Noir and Normandy cider. The closest to true Camembert in the US are Italian Tomas and Paglia-style cheeses made in Piedmont and Lombardy. The truest will taste garlicky, truffly, mushroomy with underlying flavors of nuts and wood.
Small wheel of Camembert in a wooden box
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sprig or two of fresh rosemary
Optional: smoked paprika, sea salt flakes, and/or black pepper
Bland crackers, such as Panzanela
- Preheat oven to 350-degree F/ 180-degree C.
- Place Camembert in its wooden box with lid off, onto a baking sheet.
- Score a crosshatch pattern on the top rind of the cheese.
- Drizzle with olive oil, letting it soak into the crevices.
- Insert the leaves of rosemary into the crosshatch cuts.
- Optional: Sprinkle with smoked paprika or sea salt flakes and black pepper.
- Bake in oven for 15 min.
- Remove from oven and serve immediately while still hot and oozing.
- Serve with crackers.
Jenkins, Steven, Cheese Primer, Workman Publishing Co., 1996 pp. 43, 45, 46-49, 69, 74-75, 483