November 15th, 1999

Wanted: The Perfect Camembert

The tale of one man's quest for the sublime cheese of Normandy

By Stanley Karnow

Whenever his fractious compatriots frustrated him, French president Charles de Gaulle would explode, "How can you expect to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese!" His cantankerous eruption may have been justified, but, along with wine, perfume and croissants, cheese has customarily ranked as one of France's glories.

As a typical American kid, I was raised on cellophane-wrapped Kraft. Then, after graduating from college, in 1947, I went to Paris on a summer vacation and stayed for more than a decade, initially as a student and later as a correspondent — and I became infatuated with French cheeses. It would have taken me a lifetime to savor them all, but I gradually learned to appreciate a handful, among them: Abondance, Beaufort, Beaumont, Bleu d'Auvergne, Brie, Cantal, Carré de l'Est, Compté, Coulommiers, Dauphin, Epoisses de Bourgogne, Gaperon a l'Ail, Livarot, Munster, Pônt l'Eveque, Port-Salut, Reblochon, Roquefort, Saint-Nectaire, Saint-Paulin, Saint-Rémy, Tomme de Savoie, Vacherin and a bewildering spectrum of chèvres. In my estimation, however, not one surpasses a gooey Camembert that, as the phrase goes, "walks by itself."

I concede that Camembert is not exactly stylish. Immensely popular, it is manufactured industrially throughout France and the United States and, on a smaller scale, in such places as Brazil, Germany, Norway, Poland, Israel, Japan and even the island of New Caledonia, a remote French possession in the Pacific. In 1992, a pair of innovative French entrepreneurs cemented a partnership with a dynamic Chinese businessman to launch a Camembert plant in the suburbs of Beijing — and, chiefly due to its snob appeal for the elite, their cheese has flourished. I sampled several of these imitations, and they had the texture of wax. So I recently returned to Normandy, the cradle of Camembert, seeking the genuine article.

Before leaving Paris on my ambitious expedition, I consulted Marie-Anne Cantin at her minuscule shop that is tucked away on a bustling commercial street in the 7th arrondissement, close to the Eiffel Tower. A vivacious woman approaching 50, she presides over a trade group grandiloquently titled "L'Association pour la Defense et le Respect du Fromage Francais." Many distinguished gourmets regard her as France's foremost "affineur," a practitioner who acquires, cures and sells cheese to restaurants and individuals. I was introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and Cantin greeted me cordially. We climbed down into her cellar, which smelled like a locker room and was crammed with cheeses of every description. Some were stored in spacious refrigerators; others were neatly arranged on damp straw-mats to preserve freshness. Stacked on shelves were cardboard cartons filled with orders waiting to be shipped to her global list of clients — one of whom, the Sultan of Oman, is a devoted consumer of chèvre. Afterward, we repaired to a secluded table in the café next door, where she chatted volubly as we sipped cups of strong espresso and smoked black-tobacco Gitanes.

We started by discussing the often-perplexing question of what to drink with cheese. Observing that the majority of cheeses tend to be fatty, Cantin submits that they usually overpower subtle red wines, and she shares the growing view that they harmonize better with acidic whites. "Also remember that peasants originally made cheese to prevent milk from spoiling, not to go with wine," she explains. "Hence it is alien to the great wine regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy." Sommeliers maintain that age is crucial as well. A mellow Reblochon might be served with a robust Rhône or Brouilly, while a young Pônt l'Eveque nicely complements a flinty Chablis or Sancerre, and a sweet Muscat or Sauternes combines pleasantly with a pungent Roquefort. Normans commonly marry Brie, Camembert and Livarot with fermented cider or high-octane Calvados. A maven I know concludes, "Essentially, it's a matter of taste."

Cheese talk with the French frequently drifts onto a thorny subject that irritates them as much as their belief that English is corrupting their language or that American movies contaminate their culture. Stringent U.S. health codes prohibit the importation of cheeses that are derived from raw milk and mature in under two months, on the supposition that the pathogens they may contain could cause chronic diarrhea, endanger pregnant women or increase the risk of contracting listeriosis, a fatal disease, which includes symptoms of fever and paralysis. Cantin dismisses the regulation as preposterous: "The minute you pasteurize the milk, you kill the bacteria, the flavor vanishes and the cheese is dead. Besides, if we scrutinized every food we touched, we would starve." In practical terms, the law is virtually unenforceable. Americans regularly purchase her illicit cheeses by logging onto the Cantin Web site.

As I drove into the heart of Normandy, it occurred to me that little had changed since my salad days in France. This was the same pastoral of gently rolling hills and hedgerows bordering winding lanes; cattle grazing in lush green fields, separated by rambling stone fences; dilapidated monasteries and quaint villages, with half-timbered houses clustered around ancient, moss-clad churches crowned by shingled steeples. For a moderate rate I lodged in a picture-book château complete with a moat, a dungeon and crenellated battlements, all owned by elegant aristocrats who trace their pedigree back to the reign of Louis XIV. Situated in the neighborhood is the charming medieval town of Bayeux, famous for magnificent tapestries depicting William the Conqueror's invasion of Britain in 1066. Dotting the coast are the broad beaches where on June 6, 1944, the first contingents of Allied troops splashed ashore as they embarked on their campaign to liberate Europe. I was reminded of the area's primary economic activity when I stopped for lunch at an unpretentious roadside auberge. The prix fixe menu featured a thick cream potage; a choice of fish, chicken or veal in various cream sauces; a platter of five or six cheeses; and an assortment of rich desserts, each loaded with at least a trillion calories. Even worse for my waistline were the warm baguettes and huge mounds of butter.

My ultimate destination was Camembert, a sleepy hamlet of 200 residents, which is nestled amid groves of oaks and poplars in the fertile valley of the Auge. From perusing a bit of its history I discovered that, though dusty parish archives reveal that a cheese carrying the name Camembert certainly existed as early as the 17th century, persistent legend attributes its invention to Marie Harel, a dairy maid, in the late 18th century. The story has it that she heroically rescued a royalist priest fleeing the guillotine, at the peak of the French Revolution, in 1791, and out of gratitude, he provided her with his secret formula for improving the cheese — enrobing it in a crust. It was praised by the illustrious French gastronomic expert Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and rapidly adopted by Paris connoisseurs. Camembert then earned further endorsement in 1926 when Joseph Knirim, a New York physician, appeared in the community and astonished its citizens by divulging that his experiments proved that their cherished cheese cured serious digestive problems. He then organized a public fund to erect a statue honoring Harel in nearby Vimoutiers, which also claims credit for the creation of Camembert. But the statue was decapitated in an artillery barrage that leveled the town during World War II.

In October 1956, on one of my more lighthearted journalistic assignments, I accepted an invitation from an executive of the Borden corporation to accompany him on an excursion to Vimoutiers. As a promotional gesture, the Ohio branch of his firm had financed the construction of another statue celebrating Harel, with her head restored. It was a memorable ceremony. Flags were hoisted as a band played national anthems. Resplendent in their top hats, swallow-tailed coats, striped trousers, ribbons of medals and tricolor sashes, the mayor and a series of dignitaries delivered orations extolling the eternal friendship between France and the United States. A sumptuous banquet followed, and the canonized Harel still graces the main square across from the gingerbread city hall.

Once back in the vicinity, I pursued my determined quest for the perfect Camembert by calling on François Durand, one of two local farmers who continue to produce cheese from unpasteurized milk, as their ancestors had done. A tall, slender, bespectacled figure of 47, he resembles a schoolteacher rather than an artisan. When I arrived at 10 o'clock in the morning, he had already been up and about for three hours, collecting a portion of the roughly 800 gallons of milk his herd of 45 Norman and Ostend cows yields twice daily. He ushered me into his modest cinderblock building, where I met his elderly assistant, Antonin Rossignol, the retired manager of a big cheese factory.

Wearing floppy gray smocks, they operate in an oppressively humid, tile-walled chamber, which, to satisfy the diligent sanitary inspectors, is as clean as a hospital laboratory. The previous night they had coagulated the milk by mixing it with liquid rennet, the membrane of an unweaned calf's fourth stomach. While I watched, they patiently ladled curds out of a large steel vat into 300 plastic molds. Their subsequent step was to allow the whey to drain off naturally, and, after drying and lightly salting the bottoms, they pack the finished cheese into round wooden boxes bearing the Durand label, which is a blurred photograph of a dappled cow above the guarantee: "Fabrique au Lait Cru." The slow, complex, laborious process requires two days — and in two weeks the cheese is ripe for eating.

A Parisian by birth, Durand moved with his father to Normandy as an infant and grew up on his grandparents' property. He studied agriculture and has been at his craft since 1981. During a brief break in his routine, he confided to me it was tough going. A box of his cheese wholesales for the equivalent of $2.50, double the price of competitive industrial Camembert. Heavy taxes also burden him. To supplement their income, his wife tirelessly tours the district's open-air markets in her battered van, retailing poultry, eggs — and, of course, their cheese. But both feel that they are perpetuating a valued tradition. A few years ago, Durand taught his unique skills to Pierre Kolisch, an American attorney, who proceeded to quit his job and currently makes goat cheese in Oregon.

As I was preparing to depart, I tried Durand's Camembert. In contrast to the bland, machine-made item I habitually bought at my corner grocer, it was moist and faintly piquant, and though its slightly rancid aroma might have offended the squeamish, I found it flawless. Its yellow core had begun to ooze — evidence that its microscopic organisms were alive, which accounts for the cheese's distinctive zest. Rossignol, who is 76, attributes his longevity to Camembert. As he told me, "Vous savez, it is penicillin."

My search for the ideal Camembert ended, and I defiantly smuggled a couple of boxes home. When I related my journey to my doctor, he frowned and remarked, "I hope you didn't forget your cholesterol pills."

Stanley Karnow was awarded the [cut-off accidentally]

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