☰ menu   

Bon Fromage: the Revolutionary Camembert

Intern Gabrielle Roman looks into what makes French cheeses tick for her blog series, Bon Fromage. Meant to answer any questions you might have but were afraid to ask about cheese made from the country famous for fromage, each post will focus on a specific cheese and take a deep dive into its history and production. Take the plunge and demystify the world of French cheese. If you missed it, check out last week’s post on the small but mighty Chevrotin.

You might have heard of Camembert before—it’s sort of the less popular younger brother of Brie. Everyone knows about Brie. Whether you like it or not, you’ve definitely been forced to eat it a holiday party or wedding shower. According to the earliest origin stories, Brie has been around since the 400s, making Camembert more than a thousand years younger and sometimes seen as nothing more than a Brie spinoff. I’ll get into the differences and similarities between the two, but let’s lay it on the line right now: give Camembert a chance. It might be the younger brother who was more of an oopsie than an intentional product, but you’ve got to judge it on its own merits. Let’s start from the beginning.

Legend has it that in 1791, in the midst of the French Revolution, a farmer named Marie Hamel took in a priest to hide him from hordes of angry revolutionaries who wanted to take off his head. This priest was from the town of Brie, or at least a place close by where he had learned all the secrets of cheesemaking. In return for hiding him, or maybe just because they both really wanted some cheese, he told her how to make an excellent Brie. Something went slightly awry, although we don’t know exactly what, and they created Camembert instead.

Village of Camembert in Normandy

Village of Camembert in Normandy

Some naysayers who don’t want you to have any fun will say that evidence of Camembert’s existence in the Normandy Valley can be traced back to the 1680s. Maybe Marie Hamel just improved upon the method or made a version everyone liked better. I think she should get some credit either way. She was keeping a guy from being executed and one of the few people to make a cheese in this blog series who wasn’t a monk or living in the same town as monks.

At its inception and for many years after, Camembert was a local delicacy. Because the cheese is soft (the paste is runny at room temperature) it is easy to damage during transport. For this reason, mostly just Marie Hamel’s friends and nearby towns would have been eating it. In fact, it didn’t occur to anyone to even name it at this point. Not until the mid-1800s, when Napoleon entered the picture. Yes, he might have disappeared for a couple of entries, but Napoleon Bonaparte makes his triumphant cheese return this week. Apparently he was in the area and the locals offered him some cheese. Napoleon loved the cheese so much that he kissed the girl who served it to him. That must be some dang good cheese.

It’s unclear whether Napoleon or his namesake Napoleon III is responsible for officially naming Camembert, but either way the family can be credited for finally giving Camembert its name. After trying the cheese for the first time, one of the Napoleons asked where it came from. When he was told the name of the village, he declared, “Well then, from now on it will be known as Camembert!” (But he probably didn’t say it in English.)

Still, Camembert wasn’t done yet. The Industrial Revolution in the 1890s finally introduced Camembert to the world. We can thank updated transportation and a French engineer named Ridel, no first name necessary. Apparently, M. Ridel was the Prince and/or Cher of his day. The advent of trains with tracks that crossed the country and steamboats gave Camembert a much more reliable and smoother journey from one place to another. But the real stroke of genius came from Ridel, who invented the box that held it. Even today, Camembert is often sold in a wooden box used to transport it safely from one place to the next. Think about that the next time you start complaining that technology never did anyone any good.

But we’re not done yet! It took Camembert one hundred years to bust out of its hometown, and another thirty to really become a cultural part of the French landscape. During World War I, Camembert became a favorite of French soldiers, and when they went home, they continued demanding it. The soldiers helped Camembert make its last steps to become fully integrated with the psyches of the French people and the rest, they say, is history.

Camembert received AOC status in 1983. Interestingly, while the origin of the cheese is protected, the simple designation “Camembert” is not protected. Cheeses that do not follow AOC standards can still be called Camembert. If you’re a real stickler for the rules, you’ll want to check out Camembert de Normandie and look for the official AOC stamp on the wooden box. As suggested by the official name, Camembert is made exclusively in Normandy on the northern border of France.

The real sticking point between the two different versions is that AOC-regulated Camembert must be made from unpasteurized milk. Due to health concerns (such as regulations in the US), many producers of Camembert have switched over to pasteurized milk. In fact, two of the biggest Camembert producers, Lactalis and Isigny-Sainte-Mère, switched to micro-filtered milk in 2007. This lost them AOC status and decreased the number of official producers to five. Before the switch, Lactalis and Isigny-Sainte-Mere made 90 percent of the Camembert in France. That makes this cheese oddly widespread yet exclusive at the same time.

Camembert is surface ripened, which means its surface is sprayed with the bacteria Penicillum camemberti before it is left to age a minimum of three weeks. This creates the familiar completely white bloomy rind (which you also see on Brie). All the way back in Marie Hamel’s time, though, the outside of Camembert would have been green or a greenish-gray. Pierre Boisard, author of Camembert: A National Myth, discusses how newspapers and letters at the time routinely described Camembert this way. The white rind as we known it didn’t develop until the 1920s and ’30s. Boisard theorizes this rind color change ties to Louis Pasteur and germ theory. Once people knew about germs, they thought the green Camembert looked moldy and unclean and started to favor the genetically mutated versions of Camembert with white rinds. Today, all Camembert have white rinds, and if you see one with a green rind, you should probably run in the opposite direction.

Young Camembert wheels age on wire racks.

Young Camembert wheels age on wire racks.

It’s this change to white rinds that makes Camembert and Brie seem interchangeable at times. Both have a surface-ripened white mold rind. Is the only difference between them that Marie Hamel accidentally made hers green originally?

Not quite. First, there’s size. Brie is typically made in wheels 9–15 inches in diameter, and consumers buy a slice from the larger piece of cheese. Camembert is closer to 4 inches in diameter, making it considerably smaller. During the production process, cream is added to Brie, which gives it higher fat content. Camembert, on the other hand, has stronger lactic starters (don’t worry too much about this; essentially, Camembert tastes and smells stronger than its milder counterpart). You’ll also notice a difference when comparing the paste. Brie is typically white and semi-soft on the inside but maintains its shape. Camembert is yellow on the inside, making it look sort of like a giant egg that’s been cut in half. At room temperature, Camembert paste will often be runny, only further encouraging me to make egg comparisons.

Camembert tastes earthier than Brie. Buttery and rich, Camembert also has hints of mushroom and truffles. It must be aged for at least three weeks before considered fit to eat. The French like to eat Camembert when it’s at the top of its game, at 30–35 days old. Considering that the US requires a full 60 days of aging before raw milk cheeses are allowed to cross our borders, the authentic AOC article cannot be found in the states. But the pasteurized version is apparently pretty good, too.

The culture king count has been thrown into turmoil. Napoleon earns another 2 points this week, not only for loving Camembert so much it inspired him to borderline inappropriate amorous affections but also for naming the dang cheese in the first place. But the origins of Camembert can be ignored either. It was a child of the Revolution, born while France was getting rid of the monarchy once and for all! Because of this, Marie Hamel and the priest she helped out get 2 anti-king point for creating a cheese as the monarchy died. How much more anti-king could you get?

culture king count:

Tied for first place: Charlemagne with 5 points (as overseer of all things goat and essentially creating France); Napoleon Bonaparte with 5 points (Valençay, Époisses, loving and naming Camembert, and some serious swagger)

Second place: Charles VI with 2 points (Roquefort and Maroilles);

(Tied for) Third: Trajan (Beaufort), Philip II, Louis IX, Francis I with 1 point (Maroilles)

Tied for Fourth (or is it first?): Marie Hamel and the priest with -2 points (for making cheese as the monarchy crashed around their ears); Reblochon farmers with -2 points (for sticking it to the man)

Feature Photo Credit: “Head of camembert” by alexpro9500 | Shutterstock

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.

Leave a Reply