Julia McLean writes about a cheese – the soft, smooth texture and the rich, creamy taste. Camembert, the history, the legend and a bit of advice on how to enjoy it.
The countryside is full of legends – the best one in Normandy was always ‘Queen Mathilda’s Tapestry’ which is, of course, the Bayeux Tapestry. Legend had it that it was woven by Queen Mathilda when her husband was away conquering the known world. It made the tapestry hard to locate for those of us who called it the Bayeux Tapestry because our enquiries would produce a Gallic shrug of non-comprehension.
Equally difficult to find 20 years ago was the village of Camembert because there were no road signs. In those days there were only two houses there and a church – very discreet. However, in Vimoutiers, the local market town there is a statue to Marie Harel, the farmer’s wife who ‘invented’ Camembert cheese. People say the production method was given her by a priest who came from Brie.
For most soft paste cheeses the method is the same. The milk, warm from the cow and unpasteurised (only unpasteurised milk -lait cru- is allowed in AOC cheese ) is mixed with the requisite quantity of rennet and is stirred and left to coagulate. In older farmhouses, the micro-organisms needed to start the cheese were often present on the lime-washed walls of the cellars which would be on different levels. These were divided into a series of small temperature controlled rooms (caves a affinage) into which the cheeses were transferred at the differing stages of the production. Nowadays the cheese is made by inoculating warmed milk with mesophilic bacteria (same micro-organisms as for beer – they live at blood temperature).
Once the curd has set, it is roughly chopped, sprinkled with salt and ladled into Camembert moulds (marked on the label as ‘moulé à la louche’) then the moulds are turned every six to twelve hours to allow the whey to drain away evenly. After two days, each mould contains a flat, cylindrical, solid cheese mass weighing approximately 350 grams (about 12 oz).
The cheeses were left on tightly packed wooden shelves for three weeks to ripen and acquire the distinctive rind and creamy interior texture characteristic of the cheese. The rind of the cheese was always a matter of chance and it was often blue-grey with brown spots. The farmers would often wash and salt the cheese but nowadays the cheese is sprayed with a penicillin fungus which keeps it pure white. The cheese is finally wrapped in waxed paper and placed into its distinctive little wooden box for transport and sale.
The village of Camembert is now clearly signposted and actually has a Camembert Museum and shop where you can do little tastings. Unfortunately, it closes between 12 and 2pm and there is no eatery really close. If it is a fine day, come armed with a bottle of red wine and a ‘crusty baguette’, buy your Camembert and have your little feast under the trees. Camembert is still very popular and now is often served hot as a dip. My potter friend sells huge quantities of little Camembert sized ramekins especially for the purpose.
Try some of these recipes.
MELTED CAMEMBERT WITH GARLIC DIPS
Place a whole Camembert in a ramekin to fit, in a medium hot oven for 10-20 minutes.
While it is heating through, prepare some garlic toast with really crusty bread cut into strips
When the cheese is bubbling remove the top lid with a sharp knife.
Serve immediately with a green salad and the garlic bread dips.
CHEESE PURSES WITH CHUTNEY
Cut prepared puff pastry into rounds the size of Canadian pancakes and place on baking tray.
Cut the Camembert into small triangles.
Place one on your pastry leaving space around the edge.
Brush the edge with beaten egg and cover with another round of pastry.
Put the baking tray in the fridge for 30 minutes while you prepare a chutney.
Peel and cut up two medium Granny apples into small chunks and place in a saucepan with a handful of fresh cranberries, three or four dried apricots in chunks and a handful of dates stoned and chopped, and a medium onion chopped small. Cover with wine vinegar. Heat up and when on the boil, stir in 300grams (8 ozs) brown sugar, spices to taste (ginger/chilli/cloves/cinnamon) and keep stirring until the mixture becomes jam-like (30-40 mins). When cool, add some chopped walnuts.
Pop the cheese purses into a hot oven (200C/Gas Mark 5) and bake for 10-15 minutes.
Serve the purses immediately with the chutney and a green salad. You can serve Camembert hot on Canadian pancakes or inside crepes (French pancakes) or wrap it in filo pastry. These recipes make a very good brunch although my husband’s favourite is a sandwich made of good crunchy ‘baguette’ (those thin French sticks), lavishly slathered with salted butter, packed with thinly sliced red onions and creamy slivers of just runny Camembert and munched contentedly
“Camembert” Flickr Creative Commons. ©All rights reserved by friendlydrag0n