Battle to brand ‘authentic’ Camembert in France

Producers of traditional Normandy cheese camembert, handmade using unpasteurised milk, want to educate consumers against misleading labelling

13 February 2021
The first Camembert is said to have been made in 1791 by Marie Harel, who lived in a farm not far from the Durand dairies
By Jane Hanks

Camembert is one of the best known French cheeses, sold around the world. There are two types. One made in the traditional way by hand with unpasteurised milk and an AOP label, and one which is not. Both are often labelled Fabriqué en Normandie (made in Normandy), but from the beginning of this year the government has ruled that only AOP Camemberts can put this label on their cheese boxes.

Fromagerie Durand are the only producers who make the cheese in the village in which it originated, at Camembert, Orne and they have an AOP label. They make it with milk from their own cows, of which the majority are the traditional breed of dairy cattle used for Camemberts, the Normande. The cows are outside for most of the year, other than up to four months in winter, feeding on either grass or hay. They are milked twice a day, producing around 1,800 litres. Two litres of milk are needed to make one Camembert.

Normandy cow © morosphinx / Flickr
Normandy cow milk in Camembert cheese

Florence Frémont is one of four cheesemakers who work in the dairy. They make between seven and eight hundred Camemberts a day:

“First we heat the unpasteurized milk, up to around 34°C. It must never be heated to more than 37°C. We then add in the rennet to separate the whey from the curd. This takes about an hour and then the curds are cut manually into big cubes. We then ladle the curds into the moulds, one ladle at a time with a 40 minute interval between each layer until there are five layers. This takes more than three hours.

In the afternoon, we turn the cheeses and let them drain. The next morning, we can take them out of the moulds and add a fine layer of salt over the surface of each one, by hand, which adds to the flavour and also helps develop the penicillin which will give the cheese its white coating. Each cheese has about 4-5g of salt, depending on the conditions, on the day, such as humidity level.”

The cheeses are then left to mature to develop for thirteen to fourteen days and during that time they are turned twice. They are packaged in waxed paper and put in the traditional wooden box made out of poplar and sent out for sale on the 21st day.

Mrs Frémont says there is a marked difference between an AOP Camembert and one made in a more industrial way with pasteurised milk: “Our cheeses are made from milk which comes direct from our own cows and the fact it is not pasteurised and the way we make it means you get the full flavours and richness of the milk. They are best eaten when they are around 30 -35 days old.”

A cheese rich in history

The first Camembert is said to have been made by Marie Harel, who lived in a farm not far from the Durand dairies. During the French Revolution she sheltered a priest from Brie, who told her the secrets of his local cheese – from which she made her own version in 1791, by ladling curds into a mould and maturing for several days.

Her children and then her grandchildren developed the cheese and its sales. In 1850, the railway meant the cheeses could be transported far more quickly to Paris and increased their popularity and production. They were transported on hay until, in 1890, a man called Jules Charrel invented a box made out of thin strips of poplar which meant it could now be sent further afield and even abroad.

This new type of packaging was exhibited, complete with an Art Nouveau-style label depicting a strident Marianne, at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, and became an emblem of the country.

It was later given as part of the rations to soldiers in the First World War and was described as the “soldier’s Camembert”, the “Camembert of the Allies”, and even the “National Camembert”, which featured a label showing a German soldier perched on a donkey and being kicked.

In 1919, a new label celebrated victory in the war, featuring the words, “France, Queen of the world.” Since 1983, traditionally made Camemberts have had the French label AOC and since 1993, the European label AOP.

For many years the AOC/AOP producers have been struggling for recognition against the bigger producers. One of their complaints has been over their name. They call themselves Camembert AOP de Normandie, and have long argued that the consumer is confused into thinking that Camemberts produced on an industrial scale have the same qualities as theirs when they have Camembert Fabriqué en Normandie on the box.

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