One of the most famous French soft cheeses Camembert is a luscious, buttery cheese with a thin, edible, aromatic rind. Though made throughout the world, authentic Camembert is from Normandy, an area of northwest France where cows graze on rich soil scattered with apple trees.
Some people claim to be able to taste a hint of apple in Camembert, but overall the cheese is more earthy and nutty, with the mildest hint of mould. Though often compared to Brie, Camembert is much more robust and complex. This real king of French cheeses has a chalky white rind made from added mould, and when ripe, an oozing, creamy suppleness and saltiness that is altogether unique.
Legend has it that Camembert was first made by farmer’s wife Marie Harel. She was given the secret of its recipe by Abbe Charles-Jean Bonvoust, a priest from Brie who sought refuge at Harel’s Beaumoncel farm during the French Revolution. Harel served the cheese to Napoleon as a gift from the village of Camembert. Napoleon is said to have christened the cheese he enjoyed with the name “Camembert” to forever distinguish it from France’s other soft cheeses.
Today in the Norman village of Camembert, there is a statue to honour creator Marie Harel. However, it’s likely the cheese was crafted long before Harel was even born. Writings confirm the Normandy region was acclaimed for its cheeses since the 1500s. It’s more probable that Camembert became famous during the 1850s thanks to the advent of the railroad. The cheese became well known throughout Paris and all of France during this time. In 1890, engineer M. Ridel invented the now famous round wooden box and Camembert was exported throughout the world.
The making of Camembert is closely related to that of many other famous soft French cheeses, including Brie. For traditional Camembert, only the fresh raw milk of Norman cows is used. This milk has a high fat content and is rich in proteins and vitamins. Once the milk is curdled, it is inoculated with Penicillium camemberti bacterium. Then the curd is packed into moulds and aged. An affinage of 21 days is legally required, and during this time, the penicillium mould forms the velvety white rind and slowly oozing centre that makes Camembert so famous.
It is said that in the village of Camembert, one local farmer continues the tradition of making Camembert using time-honoured methods. Though cheese makers around the world manufacture the more common commercial Camembert, authentic Camembert is made only in the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy, France. This Camembert is strictly controlled by the French government as an Appellation d’Origine Controlee (A.O.C.) product.
When buying Camembert, look for plump cheese that is soft to the touch. Avoid those with hard or cracked rinds, as this indicates that cheese did not age properly. When cut open, Camembert should ooze slowly from the middle and the paste should have a clear yellow appearance. If the cheese looks extremely runny, it’s overripe and probably unsafe for consumption. It will be bitter and rank.
Camembert is best enjoyed within seven days of purchase. Keep it refrigerated, tightly covered in its original packaging until ready to eat. Note that when Camembert is first unwrapped, it may give off a slight odour of ammonia. This is normal for a cheese with a white exterior ripening mould. Just let it rest unwrapped for a little while and the ammonia scent will disappear.
As a rule, Camembert should be served at room temperature (or even warm) to bring out its slightly salty and buttery flavour. This makes the gooey cheese even easier to spread on your favourite crackers or French baguette.
Camembert also makes a fine table cheese or luxurious addition to a cheese board. It’s perfect with grapes, berries, and melon and even more luscious with toasted nuts and sweet pears.
Camembert pairs beautifully with French Champagne and red wines such as Bordeaux or Beaujolais. In Normandy, Camembert is enjoyed with Calvados, a locally made dry apple brandy. Like Camembert, it’s considered one of the world’s greatest.