Camembert cheese is named after a small village in the Orne department of Lower Normandy, under an hour north from where we live (near Alençon). It’s a cheese of many talents: I like it young, when the inside is creamy yet crumbly, while others like it when it is really mature – what I call a runny, smelly mess. Personal choice!
Young, fresh camembert is quite mild, but as it ripens it becomes softer and more strongly flavoured. Camembert is used in lots of recipes, but its distinctive flavour and texture gets lost in heating. I prefer eating it in its natural state with fresh bread, when it MUST be served at room temperature to get the full flavour. I think it is also best served with cider rather than with wine.
The best camembert is made from untreated milk and produced in the traditional way including hand-ladling into moulds – these top-quality cheeses bear the AOC Camembert label.
Other famous cheeses in the immediate environs include Livarot, Pont l’Evêque and Neufchâtel. I confess that “Cœur de Neufchâtel”, the heart-shaped cheese, is my favourite of all of these, even if Camembert is better known.
Legend has it that Camembert cheese was invented by accident in 1791, and the story involves the French Revolution, a priest on the run and a lady farmer.
The Legend of Camembert Cheese
During the French Revolution (which began in 1789), all Catholic priests were required to swear allegiance to the new republic under pain of execution orexile. Rather than take any of these choices, some priests took refuge in the countryside.
In October 1791, the Abbé Charles-Jean Bonvoust sought refuge with Marie Harel at her manor farm, Beaumoncel near Camembert – Marie was born and grew up in Camembert. The Abbé came from the Brie, a cheese-making region near Paris. As thanks for the shelter she offered him, he gave to Marie the “secret” of making Brie-style cheese. However, Marie altered the recipe slightly, giving rise to a quite different type of cheese.
A nice story, but Camembert and the surrounding Auge region were already famous for their cheese well before Marie Harel was ever born. In 1569, Brugerin de Champier in his De Re Ciberia referred to “augeron cheeses”, as did Charles Estienne, another writer, in 1554. Thomas Corneille (brother of Pierre Corneille, author of Le Cid) also spoke in 1708 of “the cheeses of … Camembert” in his treatise on geography.
During the 19th century, thanks to the growth of the rail-road and the use of the now traditional individual, round wooden boxes to protect the cheeses from damage, Camembert conquered the markets of Paris and France and its fame has since spread world-wide.
The village is very picturesque and worth a visit. A trip there can be combined with a visit to the larger, nearby town of Vimoutiers and/or the wonderful Château de Vendeuvre which is not far away. In Camembert:
- The President Farm : find out how Camembert is made.
- Maison de Camembert (House of Camembert) : round and white, the building looks like a half-open box of Camembert! Used as a display centre in summer.
- Manoir de Beaumoncel : This old manor-house was the home of Marie Harel, the lady cheese-maker of legend
- La Héronnière Farm – Fromagerie Durand : the last dairy farm in the actual village of Camembert producing true A.O.C. camembert cheese from raw milk, hand moulded with a ladle in the traditional way.
The manufacturing process
This video is adapted from the site www.fromageriegillot.fr – one of the top manufacturers of Camembert cheese, and a multiple prize-winner.
The traditional Camembert cheese making process takes 3 to 4 weeks. Without going into detail, the main stages are:
- curdling the milk with the addition of rennet and ferments
- ladling the curds into individual moulds, from which Camembert takes its form
- draining the excess moisture from the moulds, which can take a day
- then the cheese is turned out and rubbed with salt on all surfaces, to develop the aroma of the Camembert and form the crust
- maturing in the drying room takes an average of twelve days, turning the cheese every 48 hours
- wrapping in waxed paper and packing into the traditional round, wooden containers
- eating – the best bit (but I still prefer Cœur de Neufchâtel!)
Access to Camembert:
Camembert is 1 hour (50 miles or 80km) north of our Bed & Breakfast Accommodation in Lower Normandy