If you had to name the most famous French cheese, Camembert would be a good guess and I’m quite sure you had some at least once in your life. Bad news is though that most of you probably only had one of the rogue, industrial brothers of the real and noble
Camembert de Normandie
It’s not a cheese, it’s a French phenomenon. Legend has it that the first snow-white disks were crafted by farmer Marie Harel back in the times of the revolution of 1789. When you travel the Camembert region nowadays, you’ll stumble on Marie-Harel-statues and memorials everywhere, museums have been erected to her honour and poems and chansons were written on her greatness.
In fact, modern historians have long falsified the whole story (starring amongst others a priest from the Brie region who had fled the revolutionary turmoil only to show young Marie how to do cheese). But who cares about science when it comes to good stories about good food. The Camembert legend lives (on the web as well, don’t trust it).
There’s a true story though which explains why and how a cheese could rise to a national symbol: during World War I the Camembert producers delivered their cheese as a ration for the troops in the theatre – and they refused to get paid for this honorable service. They’re that generous no longer, in Paris you’ll pay 4 to 5 Euros per piece of 250 grams.
The Appellation d’Origine Controlée, the AOC of Camembert de Normandie, consists – geographically – of five French departements in Normandy. There’s only a dozen or so producers left and only five or six of them really work like back in the 18th century. The rules to obtain the AOC branding are tough: the cheese has to be made of raw cow’s milk and processed by hand at every stage, which is quite a hassle, I’ve seen it once.
The cheese-maker must fill the thickened milk in numerous moulds with a ladle, one by one, and he has to do it five times at high tempo and in humid work rooms heated to 30° Celsius. Once done, the still fresh and rough pieces are salted and put on stock for three weeks or so, magically changing into creamy, decent cheese disks over time.
Don’t ask me how it tastes, you really have to try it for yourself. A good Camembert is an event in itself. The texture is charming to your palate and reassuring to your soul. It’s not really salty, it comes with sweet, nutty notes and sometimes, believe me, you mean to divine the herbs and the juicy meadows of beautiful Normandy.
An industrial Camembert – made of pasteurized milk in anonymous factories – can never offer these pleasures. Don’t buy it. Skip it. Try to go for the real thing: a véritable Camembert de Normandie.
Here’s a (French) video about its production.