Our delicious raw-milk, hand-poured Camembert from a nearby farm

Last week Bastien bought cheese from a nearby farm. Delicious for the amateurs of cheese that we are, the round form in its wooden box sparked an interesting conversation. You see, it’s called Camembert. Nothing strange about that- it is soft, round, made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, and it’s becoming stronger and creamier as it ripens in our cellar. The catch: we are not in Normandy, the home of Camembert.

In France, many products sport the name of the region from which they come, and these names are protected. Think “Champagne” and the controversy sparked by different producers of sparkling wines that use the name. The word “Champagne” designates both the region of France where the wine is made, and the method to make sparkling wines discovered by Dom Perignon around 1668. There is a long history that has come to give value to the name “Champagne” so that today it can be treated as something of a brand. Unfortunately, people often use the word “Champagne” to refer to any old sparkling wine, just as we might use the word “Kleenex,” which is a protected brand name, to refer to a tissue.

Camembert is only partially protected, so any cheese in the shape of an original Camembert is a Camembert, but it’s not necessarily an AOC Camembert. Camembert has become more than just a name for a cheese from a certain place, but also a name for a cheese of a certain style. AOC Camembert makers who take extra care to make a historically significant product of high quality could be hurt by the fact that “President” and others can make a highly industrialized cheese of the same name, valuing low-cost over quality.

To further illustrate my point, I cite an accidental experiment that allowed me to test two Camembert. Last spring I spent a few days in Normandy with some friends, one of whom loves dipping bread in camembert heated over the bbq so that it melts, becoming a sort of creamy fondue. My friend, being a thrifty sort of fellow, bought the cheapest Camembert at the grocery store. In the evening, we set it on the bbq after our sausages. We waited and waited, but the thing never melted. It took on a look and smell of melted plastic and after attempting to eat despite things, we all agreed to chuck it. My friend was rather disappointed, and especially bothered as we had a good reason to make fun of him. The next evening, we went to a festival of local products where he invested the extra 2 euros in a real camembert, and that evening we all regaled in a delicious bbq camembert fondue. In the end, the Camembert at 1 euro was more expensive, since it ended up in the trash.

To complicate matters, a number of Camembert from Normandy are made from pasteurized milk, which is not how Camembert was originally made. Our Camembert from Pévèle is made from unpasteurized milk, so which one better merits the title of Camembert? Physical existence on certain ground with the raw ingredients from that ground, or the employment of traditional methods?? In the most strict of senses, perhaps both criteria should be upheld, which is what the AOC label aims to assure.

A colleagues once asked me if we had regional specialties in the USA, like we do in France. I had to think about it because the answer is oui and non. Yes, we have regional specialties, but no, not like in France. In France regional specialties are highly defined and regulated, unlike in the US, as far as I know. A merlot is a merlot if it’s from California or Washington, because “merlot” is the name of a grape. In France a merlot grape grown in Bordeaux makes a wine completely different from a merlot grape grown in Languedoc, and the wine won’t be named after the grape, but after the land.

I enjoyed this article in English translated from French which scans the concept of local foods in French culture today and the labeling systems that are trying to define what is genuinely local and/or traditional to separate products of high quality from those of low quality. If you have a few minutes, you might like reading it. Enjoy your Camembert!


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