Camembert Cheese : End to a French Cheese Tradition ?
In the heart of Normandy’s Pays d’Auge region, about an hour’s drive inland from the D-Day beaches on France’s northern coast, lies the 200-person village of Camembert, surrounded by white-and-brown cows grazing in lush green pastures.
It is here that, according to legend, a woman named Marie Harel sheltered a priest who, like many following the French Revolution, was given a choice: swear allegiance to the new Republic or die at the guillotine. The refractory priest elected to flee, escaping to England through Normandy, and encountering Harel along the way. To thank her for her hospitality, the priest ostensibly shared the recipe for brie, a cheese from the region around Paris, which Harel made using local Normande milk and the moulds for washed-rind Livarot, thus inventing a new cheese that, as tradition dictated, she named after the village where she made it: camembert.
While the validity of the legend is impossible to confirm, culinary anthropologist Georges Carantino maintains that it is rooted in fact.
“In any case, it evokes that there was indeed a transmission of the techniques from an area like Brie, where this type of cheese is very old, to [Pays d’Auge], where it is a much more recent addition to the landscape.”
No matter how the technique arrived, the Normandy region that had previously produced only washed-rind cheeses like Livarot or Pont l’Evêque suddenly began making bloomy-rinded cheese like brie in the 18th Century, and camembert has been inextricable from Camembert ever since.
Of course, it would be unfair to say that camembert is merely brie made in Normandy. While the cheeses are made with the same Penicillium camemberti spore and thus boast a similar downy white mould, flavour-wise, camembert exists somewhere between the milder, buttery Brie de Meaux and the rich, meaty Brie de Melun. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that while Brie de Meaux is made primarily with rennet fermentation and Brie de Melun with lactic fermentation, camembert is made with a bit of both – a process facilitated by the rich, raw milk of local Normande cows with which camembert should always be made, at least in the mind of a true turophile.
The result is a cheese that is rich, mushroomy and complex in flavour – and unfortunately, it may be disappearing from the nation’s culinary landscape for good.
Camembert, like many cheeses, is protected by the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), a unique French organisation that strictly governs the manufacture of 46 cheeses (and 300 wines) via the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and equivalent European Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) labels. This institution aims to protect terroir, the French notion that a product is inextricably linked to the place where it is made, from traditional manufacturing processes down to unique microorganisms in the air.
But the governing of camembert has long been more complex than most. In the 19th Century, thanks to the creation of the small wooden box in which the cheese is still sold today and the simultaneous rise of train transport, camembert became quite easy to stack and ship. As a result, it was soon enjoyed by people from all over France. Since this rise in popularity predated AOP cheese regulations by several decades, camembert fans from Anjou to the Pyrenees began making their own versions, inexorably divorcing camembert from its Norman terroir.
Today, the word camembert refers not to a specific cheese, but rather to a cheese type made the world over – in fact, it was a Quebecois camembert that was dubbed the best in the category worldwide at this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest in the US state of Wisconsin – a snub that French magazine VSD called ‘stinging’ and ‘shameful’.
Despite the loss of the word, locals did finally earn AOC status for the traditional cheese in 1983, when the INAO developed an official charter, not for ‘camembert’ but for the phrase ‘Camembert de Normandie’. The cheese, it was decided, would be obligatorily made in Normandy, with the raw milk of pastured herds of cows ‘in a process of genetic evolution’ towards the Normande breed (a rule that was modified to specify that, at first, 25%, and then, in 2017, 50% of the herd be made up of Normande cattle).
By this point, however, even Normandy camembert no longer belonged to the small, artisanal producers that had once handmade this cheese throughout the region, ladling it into moulds in five distinct layers, as tradition dictates. Industrial giants such as Lactalis had set up shop and wanted their product to sport the AOP label. The caveat? They wanted to use pasteurised milk.
When this idea was shot down, industrial producers came up with their own solution: they began printing ‘Fabriqué en Normandie’ (Made in Normandy) on the boxes of the 60,000 tonnes of pasteurised camembert they produced annually, infuriating AOP producers, who produced a fraction of that amount – about 5,500 tonnes a year.
Despite arguments that the phrases were far too close for comfort, Fabriqué en Normandie continued to designate a camembert made with the pasteurised milk of Holstein cows, some of which had never seen a Norman pasture. This camembert also lacked the natural heterogeneity of the artisanal product: as far as large companies are concerned, Carantino explains, a consistent commercial identity is more important than natural seasonal variation.
For decades, it seemed that a stalemate had been reached between artisanal and industrial producers, until this February, when they came to a compromise: one unified AOP requiring the use of milk from Normande cows from Normandy – but allowing pasteurisation.
At the recent Festival des AOC/AOP in the village of Cambremer, about a 45-minute drive from Camembert, locals and tourists alike milled through a series of market stalls, tasting cheeses and other products from all over France. But inside a local meeting room, tensions were high.
“Pasteurised milk isn’t milk anymore!” culinary journalist Périco Légasse cried from his seat on a panel intended to discuss consumer faith in the AOP and AOC labels. “An AOP cheese is made with raw milk. That’s the very definition of it. Raw milk is the essence of a cheese.”
Patrick Mercier, a farmer-producer of organic camembert and president of the Camembert ODG, the official collective behind the camembert AOP label, agreed, with a proviso: that the loss of raw milk as a requirement was a fair trade-off for the return of Normande milk.
“We’re finally going to have a significant number of Normande cows in the fields,” he said. “They’re going to be pastured; they’re going to eat this grass.”
The presence of these cows is not just a beautiful image; it’s also an essential element in the cheese’s production. Holstein milk, Mercier explained, while more abundant, is poorer in fat and casein than that of Normande cattle, making it difficult to achieve the coveted half-lactic, half-rennet fermentation that defines a true camembert.
“It’s a return. It’s a renaissance,” he said. “And I’m sorry, but it means the war is over.”
Of course, Mercier noted, there is still the issue of terroir to address. “It does beg the question: do you transmit terroir when you pasteurise?” he said. “Well, yes. A bit.”
Carantino agrees to a certain extent. Pasteurised milk, by its very nature, must have local microorganisms reintroduced into it to produce cheese, a process that has been fine-tuned over the past century.
“We’ve been able to isolate more and more interesting strains [of local microorganisms] with which to make cheese,” Carantino said. “At the beginning, we added about two or three [strains]; now we can add dozens.”
This, he notes, means that pasteurised cheeses can achieve a far more interesting, complex flavour today than even 20 years ago (The Canadian camembert deemed the world’s best was made with pasteurised milk.) This also means, of course, that these camemberts can be exported to international markets that wouldn’t accept cheese made from raw milk.
“You can have raw-milk camemberts that aren’t very good,” Carantino said. “And you can have pasteurised-milk camemberts that, without having all the qualities of a good raw-milk camembert, can be perceived as good cheeses.”
But at least one fervent defender of the traditional methods remains.
Nicolas Durand has been making raw-milk camembert by hand since 2000 at the picturesque Ferme de la Héronnière. His farm can be found just steps from the sign beckoning visitors into the village of Camembert, home to a museum devoted to the cheese, and to Marie Harel’s legacy. Along with Mercier, Durand is the last of his kind: a farmer-producer of raw-milk camembert made with the milk of cows he raises on his property.
But Durand falls on a different side of the debate. In the small shop on his farm selling cheese, dry-cured sausage and other local products, Durand explained that for him, the connection with the animals, the land and the cheesemaking process is far more important than the AOP label. Camembert, after all, is not an easy cheese to make, requiring expertise and constant tinkering to account for changes in acidity and moisture.
“It’s very difficult to master,” Durand said. “At the same time, that’s what gives it its charm.”
After his brother left the company in 2016, Durand partnered with supermarket chain Grand Frais, a decision that relieves him of much of the financial burden of his chosen profession. Today, not only does Grand Frais purchase and distribute about 80% of the 700-800 raw-milk camemberts Durand produces daily, but the company also financed the purchase of additional cattle to his farm to help Durand reach his AOP-influenced goal of 80% Normande in his 90-cow herd.
Of course, not everyone making camembert in the region will have quite so many Normande cows; Durand is in the running for a second tier within the new AOP, one that will recognise the harder work and higher expense of his initiative. This label, ‘Véritable Camembert de Normandie’ (true Normandy Camembert), set to launch by 2021, is still in the process of being developed, but it will likely require producers’ herds to contain at least 70% Normande cattle and that the cheeses be ladled by hand into their moulds. Durand believes that this second tier label may eventually require 100% Normande cattle, as well as grass-feeding (with forage in winter) to ensure that even the cows’ diet is reliant on local terroir.
This could seem like a good compromise, allowing discerning consumers to seek out raw-milk camembert while industrial producers continue to churn out the pasteurised version for the masses – and overseas sales. But, according to Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president of l’Association Fromages de Terroirs, two-tier AOPs like this “don’t work”. At the Festival des AOC/AOP, she cited the example of Cantal cheese from France’s Auvergne region, where the creation of a two-tiered system and subsequent market shift towards less-expensive pasteurised Cantal has led 40% of artisan, raw-milk cheesemakers to leave the AOP label entirely in favour of producing ‘Salers tradition’, an ancestral version of Cantal.
Richez-Lerouge believes that this decision sounds the death toll for quality camembert, telling the Daily Telegraph that the cheese will now likely “sink inexorably into mediocrity”.
“Camembert doesn’t belong to Normandy; it belongs to France. It belongs to the world,” she told the festival panel. “Who will remember, in 10 years, when camembert was made by hand with a ladle, and from raw milk? No-one.”
Légasse expresses his worry that the decision to allow pasteurisation will open the door for similar rules in other regions, something that he deems unacceptable.
“It’s a contract,” he said of the AOP label. “It’s an oath of the Republic. The French Republic commits to certify that this cheese is authentic.”
Jean-Louis Piton, president of the INAO, believes that this compromise is nevertheless the best solution to improve the quality of the lowest common denominator, forcing industrial producers to adhere to some – if not all – of the strict regulations their AOP colleagues always have. And Piton has faith that savvy consumers will know how to distinguish between the pasteurised AOP cheeses and the value-added raw-milk ones.
But Durand prevaricates.
“I’m not sure [raw-milk camembert] will persist,” he said, stroking the nose of one of his Normande cattle. Not only is the cheese expensive and difficult to produce, but industrial producers have undercut farmer initiatives with the low prices facilitated by mass production.
“Consumers are going to be so lost with the new AOP,” he said as he walked across his farm. “Between the pasteurised AOP, the true AOP… we’ll have to see. We’ll have to see.”
For now, Durand, at least, will continue to keep camembert’s legacy safe, ensuring that visitors are still able to experience the most authentic version of this ancestral cheese on the outskirts of Marie Harel’s hometown, the place where it all began.