Normandy’s Camembert is one of the most famous cheeses in France and indeed in the world. Despite being protected by a PDO, it is still widely imitated.
Its quality comes from the milk of Normande cows who graze on the Normandy’s rich pastures and are fed hay in the winter. Their milk is rich in fats and protein and perfect for cheesemaking.
The skilled task of moulage à la louche (hand-ladling into molds) lightens the curds, and this step is essential to giving the finished cheese its distinctive characteristics. The curds are not broken up, but a small amount is scooped up with a ladle, whose diameter is the same as the mold (10.5 to 11 centimeters), then placed into the mold so the whey can drain off. This gesture is repeated at least five times, every 40 minutes, layering the curds in the molds. This production technique, plus the microclimate and the extraordinary characteristics of the raw milk used, make for a unique cheese of excellent quality, which has become emblematic of France’s cheesemaking traditions.
Over two centuries have passed since cheesemaker Marie Harel supposedly sheltered a priest on the run from anti-clerical government forces during the French Revolution. According to legend, he passed on the recipe for a soft cow’s milk cheese with an edible bloomy rind. The cheese was so popular that it was soon being sold in the Paris markets. In 1880 Camembert became the first cheese to be sold in a box, and still today can be found in its iconic round wooden packaging.
After the Second World War, however, the agricultural production system was industrialized. Normandy’s dairies grew bigger and bigger and large-scale retail began driving down prices. As a result, Normandy lost over 90% of its small-scale producers, the fermiers, who were replaced by a handful of big factories. Little by little, most of the names that had written Camembert’s history handed their brands over to a multinational, which makes the majority of all the Camembert sold today.
The current legislation is no help. The “Camembert de Normandie” PDO consortium demands raw milk, moulage à la louche by hand, and a minimum of 6 months of grazing on Norman pastures, but in recent times has decided to modify the regulations to allow pasteurization in the near future. In exchange, the commercial branding “Camembert fabriqué en Normandie,” applied to industrial, pasteurized cheeses, which only confuses consumers, will be taken off the market.
But both brands allow the use of silage, GM corn and soy, the blending of milk from multiple farms, mechanized cheesemaking, selected starter cultures, and the use of calcium chloride. The result is the presence on the market of a Camembert that is increasingly anonymous and the loss of artisanal skill and dairy biodiversity.
In this context, raw milk Camembert made by producers using milk from their own cows (fermier, or “farmhouse,” producers), generally of the Normande breed, pastured on Normandy’s rich grasslands, is at serious risk of extinction. In fact there are only two farmhouse producers who meet these criteria, Patrick Mercier and Janine Lelouvier, in Orne and in Calvados, who in addition to the AOP also have organic certification and the “hay milk” denomination.
The Presidium’s aim is to help the fermier producers to improve the cheese’s distinctiveness, using native starter cultures produced on the farm, rather than the industrial cultures by now used by many small-scale French cheesemakers. It also wants to promote organic agriculture, the local Normande cattle breed, pasturing and the use of self-produced hay.
Over the long term, the Presidium wants to become a virtuous example for new small-scale farmhouse producers who aspire to make Camembert that respects local history and traditions.
Calvados, Eure, Manche, Orne and Seine-Maritime departments, Normandy region
Patrick Mercier, 61700 Champsecret, France, Tel. +33 02 33376019, Fromagerie: +33 06 99446019, Visite : +33 06 80032964,
Janine et Denis Lelouvier, 14380 Landelles et Coupigny, Tel. +33 02 31675820, firstname.lastname@example.org