adventures in craft beer and real food

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Book notes: Camembert

I just finished reading a particularly surprising and delightful book called Camembert: A National Myth by Pierre Boisard. It was originally published in 1992 as Le Camembert, Mythe National, but it wasn't published in English translation (thanks to Richard Miller) until 2003. In posting notes about this book I don't intend to dig up old news ("Kuwait has just been invaded, the implications could be...") but to help give this book some of the attention it deserves. As of the time of this posting, it has not received a user review on Amazon's or Barnes and Noble's online stores. Perhaps the book has an uncanny similarity to its subject: both the book and the cheese are difficult to approach, but that very aspect is the very basis for its merit. Peter Hepburn said that Camembert is "suitable only for academic food and French studies collections." Put one way, this book is erudite and engaging; put another, it is dry and pedantic. Which way you see it depends upon your perspective.

The book follows the full trajectory of camembert from its rural origins to its industrial transformation in the twentieth century. Camembert derives its name from a tiny Augeron village that today boasts of only 204 citizens. According to a widely-believed creation myth, camembert cheese was created by a peasant by the name of Marie Harel. As the story goes, a priest was given sanctuary from the revolution by Harel. In return the priest taught her the secret to making camembert. Harel and her descendents were the first notable producers of camembert, who gave rise to the reign of the "great families" as Marie Harel's descendents included increasingly many people. These producers rose to prominence and fell spectacularly over time. In the end, Michel Besnier ended up buying up the vast majority of camembert producers in the latter half of the twentieth century and industrializing its production.

Boisard casts the story of camembert's creation into serious doubt. Although there are extant birth and death certificates for a Marie Harel of Normandy, there is evidence that she lived in Roiville at the time – not Camembert. Boisard notes references to "Camembert cheeses" as early as 1702, so it seems as though the cheese existed before its supposed creator. What is more likely to have happened, Boisard reasons, is that Marie Harel was able to take credit for an older cheesemaking tradition. Although it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to claim credit for something that's been around for a long time, I remembered the on-going dispute over the terms Budweiser and Pilsener. Both words are used by American companies, but they refer to the Czech cities of Budweis and Pilsen respectively. The aforementioned American company has gone so far as to sue Czech breweries in an attempt to forbid them from (correctly) calling their beers Budweiser.

When I picked up the book I thought I knew what Boisard was going to say. "Camembert used to be so good. But then industry came along and wiped it all out leaving us with nothing but ersatz camembert." Although Boisard tries to provide a balanced narrative, you do come away with that impression. What I didn't expect was that the tragedy of camembert goes even further, and yet that hope for the cheese remains.

It's not just that the camembert of Marie Harel is no longer made; it's that it's not even possible to make it anymore even if someone really wanted to. When camembert was known only inside of Normandy -- that is, before it went national -- it was a truly rural product. It was fermented with Penicillium camemberti, which caused it to have a blue, green, or black mold. Urban consumers exhibited a strong preference for white camembert, which was made possible with the help of the Institut Pasteur by using P. candidum instead. This change almost certainly affected the taste of the cheese, by all reports, by removing the cheese's "peasant bite" (i.e. it became less sharp). But because P. camemberti had been use for so long, cheese factories were infested with it. Factory by factory, the bacteria was eradicated since it was viewed as a precursor to a product defect. The last known colony disappeared in 1961. No known culture of P. camemberti exists anywhere in the world today.

Moreover, the world in which camembert was born into is daily becoming relegated to history. Traditionally camembert was made from unpasteurized milk. In order to not wreck havoc upon a cheese factory, the milk has to be be sanitary. Sanitary unpasteurized milk must be collected with extreme diligence. The udders must be thoroughly cleaned. It must be stored as cool, but not too cool, temperatures, and cannot be allowed to stand for much time before it is used. Unpasteurized camembert, like all unpasteurized cheese, derives its unique flavor from its terroir. Modern cows are not only an inferior and untraditional breed -- Holsteins -- but are likely to not eat from the pasture as they once did. Modern dairy operations operate on a scale where these traditions are difficult or impossible to maintain. If the cheese maker can't trust the farmer, he will have little choice but to pasteurize the milk he receives. If the cows' milk has a lower butterfat content, it can't be made into the same cheese as it used to be.

As the European Union solidifies into a cohesive unit, the few remaining producers of unpasteurized camembert are under new pressure. There have been proposals that all cheeses produced in the EU must be pasteurized, presumably to optimize safety. One hopes that integration into the EU will have the same effect that it did on absinthe, which became legal everywhere in europe. The pasteurization issue combined with the invention of a ladling machine that makes camembert the "traditional", if automated, way, the future of the cheese certainly appears to be imperiled. I say "traditional" not traditional because this machine cuts the curd, which is not allowed in the traditional means of fabrication.

Boisard deals harsh criticism to Americans. Before 1949, when unpasteurized cheeses that had been aged for less than 60 days were banned in the US (per 21 CFR 133), Americans loved camembert cheese and imported more of it than any other country. Sometime in the latter part of the twentieth century, Americans became obsessed with food safety. In their zeal to eliminate bacteria from food, they did away with anything good or distinctive in camembert. Indeed, nearly all of the camembert available today in the United States is aggressively bland and insipid. Pasteurization removes any local nuance from a cheese.

This outrage could be justified if people were keeling over from consumption of raw milk cheeses. Yet americans were eating unpasteurized cheeses for hundreds of years and europeans have been eating raw milk cheeses for thousands of years without widespread sickness or fatality. Pasteurized cheese, on the other hand, has been shown to cause extensive sickness from time to time. You might object that if the improperly pasteurized milk causes sickness, then surely the unpasteurized cheese would have also caused sickness. But one of the main reasons why milk is pasteurized in the first place is to make up for inferior quality. If the raw material were of higher quality, it wouldn't be necessary at all. Perhaps efforts should instead be focused on education and microbial testing of milk entering the cheese factory.

Anyway, Camembert is an excellent book. My only complaint is that it doesn't come with samples of cheese! It may make me sad for my country, but I have hope that someday real cheese will again be allowed into the country.

... I understand that unpasteurized camembert can be ordered online. The blogging community should really have a "Gandhi marches to the sea to make salt" moment and all eat camembert contraband on one day. If bloggers can break political scandals before the mainstream media, bloggers can help craft sane food regulations.


xenobiologista said...

Maybe you can get P. camemberti on the EU's endangered species list or equivalent?

Didn't know they have Holsteins in France too. You should talk to Dave Scott, his friend Jeremy raises Jerseys last I heard. Maybe he can hook you up with some extra creamy dairy products or something.

Elisabeth said...

Excellent. This is going on my wish list next to The Year of the Goat.

Dave said...

Tesco sells an unpasteurised camembert, surprisingly. Haven't found one in Waitrose, but the Tesco one is the best camembert I've tasted. Masses of flavour. It's their own brand and their "Finest" one.

Luise said...

So does the book (or do you know) any links to websites where I can order unpasteurized, from-Normandy (and preferably AOC) Camembert to the US?