Camembert Book

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The book I read

I felt like a snob reading an in depth book about the history of a French cheese. My real goal was to learn about a tradition of cheese-making and this book covered one. Camembert: A National Myth was translated from French and had a convincing air of authority since it was written by a proud Frenchman. Although I ended up skimming through the book, focused mostly on production, I learned a great deal about Camembert and to that effect some interesting issues that developed as Camembert went from being a local homemade product, to a regional artisan product, to a national industrial product, and finally to an international industrial product.

What I learned about Camembert:

  • It was invented by a woman from Normandy and a priest
  • French Cheese was traditionally made by women
  • To make Camembert, milk is first coagulated with rennet, then ladled into circular molds that strain out the whey, and then left to age in a structure that has adjustable vents (adjusted to provide optimum humidity or dryness)
  • Traditional Camembert contains milk from the Auge region of Normandy that is not pasteurized
  • The recipe for Camembert is so generic that it cannot be patented or restricted the way Champagne is restricted to regional production
  • Roquefort is the only French cheese that has a regional restrictive label and certification
  • Camembert became the national cheese of France after World War I
  • Camembert is sold in small round wooden boxes
  • Traditional Camembert had a reddish or bluish rind; the rind becomes white because it gets coated in penicillin
  • Pasteurization neutralizes natural variety in regional milk flavors
  • All Camembert made with pasteurized milk tastes the same — and is bland compared to the Camembert made with unpasteurized milk

Boisard frequently discussed the dynamic in developing from artisan to industry. He described the struggle of French artisans, like the Syndicate des Frabricants du Veritable Camembert de Normandie, trying to maintain their authentic regional character as they grappled with industrial production and health impositions like pasteurization. “In imposing on Camembert its whiteness, evocative of hygiene and asepsis, Pasteur’s disciples were telling the cheese maker that the era of empiricism had arrived and that the cheese, the product of peasant know-how, could become a product of mass consumption only if it were ‘cleansed’ under laboratory control” (page 80). To balance the antiseptic nature of industrial production in cheese making, Boisard proposes that the most important aspect of production is to maintain the relationship between the milk producer and the cheese maker. The milk should be sourced very close to the cheese producer, must be unpastuerized, and there should be a kinship between both.

In the final chapter of Camembert Boisard rallies for tradition by sensually describing the delight of a Camembert made with unpasteurized milk from Normandy. He compares the aroma of sex to the scent of a well aged Camembert saying they “may provoke disgust or excitement, but they rarely create indifference” (page 216). He continues to colorfully describe the experience of Camembert with pride and affection turning all that read the book from ignorant cheese-eater to a passionate snob.

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