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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Camembert Cheese; France's most Famous Cow's Milk Cheese.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated December 2017.
Camembert de Normandie
and a glass of Blanc de Blancs Champagne

Camembert, France's most Famous Cheese.
Camembert is a soft, 45% fat, cow's milk cheese and when perfectly ripe it is creamy and spreadable, but not runny. The cheese is aged for at least 21 days before being sold. A ripe Camembert has a fresh mushroom smell. The very best Camemberts are made with unpasteurized milk, but despite that caveat, some decent French Camembert cheeses are made with pasteurized milk. Camembert rind is natural and has a white to light brown color. Despite that, good fromageries, French cheese shops, will not sell a Camembert before it is two months old. Traditionally Camembert cheeses come in thin poplar wood boxes, but lower priced cheeses are sold in cardboard boxes. Only outside France have I seen French Camembert cheeses sold in vacuum packed metal tins.
Preparing Camembert in the 19th century.
Louis Figuier. - Paris : Furne, Jouvet, [1873-1877]
Camembert’s name is not protected.

Camembert is the most popular cheese in France and around the world is the most famous of all French cheeses.  Only the unpasteurized milk Camembert from Normandy called the “Camembert de Normandie AOP” is a protected name. Other Camemberts may be made elsewhere in France. Outside France, cheeses called Camembert are made in nearly every country. A few may have a taste that is close to original, but most are very different.

Camembert and Brie

Camembert is sometimes compared or confused with Brie. When ripe they have a  similar look. However, the flavor is very different with Brie being milder and slightly creamier. The traditional Brie cheese comes in much larger sizes than Camembert.

Choosing a Camembert

Try the difference between any Camembert cheese and the best of the best which is unpasteurized cheese Camembert de Normandie AOP. Outside the European Union some countries, like the USA prohibit the importation of soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. You may have to travel to France to taste the best. 
When choosing Camembert from a restaurants cheese tray or trolley the center should be soft, just beginning to bulge when cut but not running.  Any cheese that looks hard or dry should be left for the mice.
A perfectly ripe Camembert.
Note the cheese is not runny, just beginning to bulge.
Photograph from Yay images and monkey business
Camembert on French menus:

Beignets de Camembert et sa Confiture de Myrtilles Deep fried pieces of Camembert served with a bilberry jam.

Croustillants de Camembert Chaud, Poitrine Fumée, Pommes Grenailles, Noix, Tomates, Salade, Vinaigrette Balsamique – Crisply fried pieces of hot Camembert served with smoked bacon, small new potatoes and a salad with walnuts, and tomatoes with a Balsamic vinaigrette.

Demi Camembert au Four et son Jambon Cru – Half of a baked Camembert served with cured ham.  Cured ham is sliced very thinly and cannot be cooked; it would lose all its taste. The ham will be added just before serving.

Flammeküeche au Camembert (Fromage blanc à la muscade, crème fraîche, lardons, Camembert) Flammeküeche also called Tarte Flambée is a rolled out, very thin, pâte à pain, bread dough, covered with crème fraîche and a soft white cheese.  Usually, the white cheese is a local cheese called bibeleskaes.  To this are added thinly sliced onions and lardons, smoked or fried bacon bits. Here the white cheese is flavored with nutmeg, and Camembert cheese is added. Flammeküeche/ Tarte Flambée comes from the Alsace now part of the new super region of the Grande Est and is often made with different cheeses including their own Munster AOP cheese.
Suprême de Pintade Parfumé à l'Andouille Sauce Camembert Guinea fowl breast flavored with Andouille sausages, and served with a Camembert cheese sauce.  Andouilles are a pork and or veal tripe smoked sausage and not to be confused with Andouillettes. Andouilletes are also veal and pork tripe sausages but have a much stronger taste.
The village of Camembert
Camembert's history began just outside the village of Camembert in the department of Orne, Normandy.  Despite the village's fame it still has less than 200 inhabitants. According to tradition, Camembert cheese was created by a Ms. Marie Harel, the owner of a farm just outside the village. This was at the end of the 18th century, during the French revolution. The classic tale includes a priest who helped Ms. Harel in the creation of the cheese. In return, Ms. Harel hid the priest from the revolutionaries.  Despite the tradition Camembert cheese probably pre-dates Ms. Harel by a few hundred years.

A strawberry, arugula, and Camembert salad.

Vimoutiers the town, promoter, and protector of Camembert.
Close to the village of Camembert 3km, (2 miles) away, is the small, but bustling town of Vimoutiers with just under 5,000 inhabitants.  Vimoutiers has taken over the responsibility for merchandising Camembert de Normandie AOP.  The town has erected two statues: one in memory of Marie Harel and the second named, for a reason I have never found Ratisfaite. Ratisfaite honors the real force behind the cheese, the Norman Cow.  Vimoutiers also has a Camembert Museum, their Musée du Camembert.

The town of Vimoutiers has a French language website and offers a small amount of information in English.  It is best used in French with the Google or Bing translation apps.


A statue of Marie Harel in Vimoutiers.
To assure that visitors to Vimoutiers are only offered the best Camembert cheese there is a very active Confrérie.  The Confrérie des Chevaliers du Camembert is the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of the Knights of the Camembert.  These gallant knights promote the Camembert de Normandie AOP and do battle with all the pasteurized milk versions of their beloved cheese.

A Camembert de Normandie AOC,
It is not easy being a Knight of the Camembert as they have to work alongside another confrérie which guards the tradition of a True Normand. A True Normand is a glass of Calvados, or sometimes a Calvados sorbet offered at least once during a traditional Norman meal. After too many True Normands the Knights of the Camembert may lose their jobs, When visiting Vimoutiers, you quickly realize that there is a great deal of activity at the dinner table when enjoy real Pays d’Auge Norman cuisine.  Of course in the spirit of the place you must include Camembert in the cheese course and one of the three Calvados apple brandies for your True Normand, and later choose an aged Napoleon Calvados as your digestif.     The Knights of Camembert also have to dress up in would be ancient costumes.

Confrérie des Chevaliers du Camembert.
Photograph from the Confrérie's Facebook page.

Taste Camembert at Vimoutier’s apple fair.
In April Vimoutiers has an Easter Fair, and in October they celebrate the Foire de la Pomme, their apple fair. Their Foire de la Pomme is held annually on the third Saturday and Sunday of October. The fair celebrates their local cidre, cider, as well as Normandy’s Calvados, their three unique apple brandies and Pommeau. Pommeau is Normandy's apple based aperitif. All of Vimoutiers fairs offer tastings and the sale of Camembert de Normandie AOP cheeses as do the Vimoutiers Monday afternoon and Friday morning farmers’ markets.
Camembert’s Norman Heritage.
Camembert is one of Normandy’s four AOP cheeses; the others are Livarot AOP, Pont l'Evêque AOP, and Neufchâtel AOP.  As may be expected with so much butter and cream coming from Normandy they are all cow’s milk cheeses. Normandy is also the source of one of France’s three AOP butters the Beurre d'Isigny AOP and the only AOP crème fraiche, the Crème d’Isigny AOP. Along with butter comes Normand has an AOP cider and three Calvados AOP apple brandies
The Paris to Camembert bicycle race.
Photograph courtesy of pinarancio.
If you are a Camembert aficionado, and also a competitive cyclist, join the annual Paris - Camembert Europe Tour bicycle race.  The Paris - Camembert is a one-day pro-cycling 200 km (124 mile) race held on the second Tuesday of April every year. To watch the race make a note that the Paris-Camembert race no longer begins in Paris or ends in Camembert. The start and finish points change so use the Google or Bing translate apps to check route using the race’s French-language website:

Buy your cheese in a Fromagerie
French fromageries, cheese shops sell Camembert cheeses by the day their customer plan to eat the cheese. The Camemberts offered will not have been refrigerated, rather kept in a cool cellar, and brought out as the cheese ripens. To take a cheese that will be ready in one week or one day ask in a Fromagerie and that is what you will be offered. Good fromageries vacuum pack cheeses for travel. For more about buying cheese in France and taking it home click here,
Your Camembert, like other cheeses, will not mature in a refrigerator; it will remain as you bought it and slowly dry out. To mature cheese, you need a cool basement or a wine cooler. In winter a cold, but not freezing, garage will do just as well.
Camembert au Lait Cru – Camembert made with unpasteurized milk. If a French shop or supermarket is making is this claim make sure that they are offering a Normandie Camembert  AOP, that is the best.  Normandie Camembert AOP will be explicitly noted on the packaging.

Buy your cheese in a fromagerie
Camembert au Lait Cru Moulé à la Louche More supermarket or cheese shop advertising!  This describes a Camembert cheese made with unpasteurized milk and prepared using a unique cheese ladle. Those extra words moulé à la louche, molded on the ladle, may make you feel that you are being offered something unique. Do not pay more for this. All French unpasteurized Camembert cheeses are made this way anyway!
The AOC and or AOP initials on Camembert de Normandie
The French AOC initials on the labels of many French foods and wines protect the name, origin, and method of manufacture of these products, and they have been in use for nearly 80 years. These French initials are now gradually being replaced by the Pan-European  AOP, the English language PDO, which stands for the Protected Designation of Origin. The AOP gives a similar protection to the European consumer for food products as the AOC.  The Camembert de Normandie received its AOC label in 1983. For more about the AOC and AOP on French foods click here. For more about the new French wine labels and the AOC and AOP on French wines click here.

Camembert’s wooden boxes

There is a threat to the traditional wooden Camembert boxes.  France is facing a shortage of poplars, the tree from which comes the wood to make the packaging of this famous cheese. The poplar also supplies the wood for fruit crates and other boxes.  Since 2015 the industry is, supposedly, planting the poplar, which is a profitable and environmentally friendly tree, in numbers that can keep up with the demand.
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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
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