Everyone knows the French love cheese – for them, it is more than just food! While the country has an exceptionally high variety of cheeses (around 400 if you don’t count the sub-varieties), France is most widely associated with 2 kinds of cheese: Brie and Camembert.
I have just returned from visiting Normandy for 2 weeks and I am excited to share all about Camembert!
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What is Camembert Cheese?
Camembert (pronounced cam-om-bear; the ‘t’ is silent in French) is one of France’s most emblematic cheeses! It is a deliciously soft, ripened, white mold French cheese whose success and popularity grew so much over the years that it was exported and produced all around the globe.
Where is Camembert Cheese from?
Camembert hails from the Normandy region of Northern France, specifically from the little village of Camembert. This cheese was first mentioned in the early 18th century, and the most popular story of its origin states that it was created by Marie Harel, the wife of a local farmer in 1791.
The story goes that during the French Revolution, a priest who had fled his native area of Brie was under Marie’s shelter and assisted her in creating a soft cheese using a similar technique as the Brie cheese. She added her own knowledge to its production, and thus, Camembert was born.
In the 19th century, when railroads could carry large amounts of cheese across the country, a French engineer named Ridel created a small wooden box to make carrying the cheese easier. This simple idea soon spread and all the producers adopted the wooden box. During the First World War, this cheese was issued to French troops, thus making it even more popular in France.
Can Camembert be produced anywhere in the world?
Traditionally, Camembert was made using raw cow’s milk, but pasteurized milk was replaced as the main ingredient as the years passed. The producers of Camembert did not apply for protected status, and as such, it can be produced anywhere in the world without following the exact recipe.
Camembert de Normandie, on the other hand, has a Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) since 1983 and Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP) since 1996. This means that Camembert de Normandie has to be made from at least 50% milk from Norman cows who graze in Normandy for more than six months of the year. This version follows the traditional recipe where lait cru or raw milk is used to make the cheese.
There are strict regulations that producers must follow when manufacturing cheese and it needs to adhere to strict dimensions. Camembert de Normandie must weigh at least 250gm and have a fat content of a minimum of 45%. It is produced in Normandy in several municipalities like Calvados, Orne, Manche, and Eure.
How is Camembert made?
Camembert de Normandie must be made from raw cow’s milk, although other variations can use pasteurized milk. Lactic ferments and yeast are added to the milk to help in coagulation. The milk is ripened at 12°C/54°F for several hours before it can be coagulated with liquid bovine rennet.
This process transforms the milk into a soft curd which is then cut, molded, and drained for several hours. The curd is then removed from the mold and brined with salt on one side and Penicillium candidum on the other to add flavor and prevent any unwanted mold from catching on.
The cheese is stored on shelves and regularly turned to achieve even mold growth. The skin of Camembert ripens the cheese from the outside in. The aging process takes around four weeks, and as the cheese slowly ripens, it becomes creamier in the center and gains a smooth, firm texture.
Maison du Camembert
If you have the opportunity to visit the town of Camembert in Pays d’Auge, be sure to pop in at La Maison du Camembert. In the heart of the village, the Maison showcases the secrets of making this beloved cheese. The visit has an audio guide in French and English, and is followed by a tasting of three kinds of Camemberts!
You can also indulge in some of the other local products like ciders and jams. To add a bit of fun, the Maison can add your photo to the label of your Camembert cheese!
Address for la Maison du Camembert: 61 Le Bourg in Camembert.
Camembert vs Brie
Camembert and Brie are both French creamy cheeses with a bloomy, pleasant rind. Both originate in northern France and are made out of cow milk. Known for their creamy texture and edible rinds, these soft cheeses have similarities, but they are not exactly the same. Both are amazing in their own way but Brie has a more refined taste as compared to Camembert’s rustic texture.
What is the difference between Camembert cheese and Brie cheese?
The easiest way to differentiate between the two is by size. Camembert usually comes in smaller wheel sizes, around 8-10 centimeters (3-4 inches) in diameter, and is sold as a whole. Brie, on the other hand, comes in much larger wheel sizes (unless it’s baby/petit Brie) and can be sold in pre-cut pie-style wedges.
Brie cheese originated in the Brie region of Île de France and has a much longer history compared to Camembert. Records of people enjoying Brie date back to the 8th century whereas Camembert was a much more recent appearance of the 18th century.
While Brie and Camembert have a similar production process, Camembert has stronger lactic starters than Brie, giving Brie milder flavors. In some processes, cream is added to the Brie cheese to give it an extra creamy texture.
When it comes to smell and taste, Camembert has an earthy smell while Brie is lighter with a buttery aroma. The smell translates into taste making Camembert intense and heavier on the tongue while Brie is softer and mild.
How to eat Camembert Cheese?
Camembert can be baked as a whole or used as an ingredient in savory pies and quiches. The cheese also works well in a sandwich and a salad. Or eat it all own its own with a glass of wine!
What is baked Camembert?
Camembert can be baked in an oven for 6-10 minutes or more until the body is warm and melting. To bake Camembert, make sure you remove any stickers and stapled pins from the box. It can be baked in the wooden box it comes in (without the lid); just slash the top to add some herbs or flavors and pop it in the oven until gooey. Put the warm Camembert on a platter and surround it with dippers like crackers or bread, and accompaniments like jams or flavored oils.
If you’re baking Camembert, it is best served immediately after taking it out of the oven. When serving a wedge, ensure it’s room temperature and not straight out of the refrigerator.
Camembert can also be added to recipes. Chop up some pieces to add to a salad with arugula greens, apples or pears, and nuts like pecan or walnut.
Here are some of my favorite baked Camembert recipes:
- Baked Camembert with Cranberry & Walnuts
- Baked Camembert With Jam
- Baked Camembert with Honey and Chili Flakes
- Pasta With Baked Camembert
What to serve with baked Camembert?
Warm, melting Camembert is a true indulgence and goes down well with evenings with friends and close ones. Baked Camembert is an easy dish that can be paired with several sides, including good old bread pieces and sweet fruit. Choosing what to serve with baked Camembert can help you set the mood for the meal, be it playful, traditional, or experimental!
For a savory note, roasted vegetables, Brussel Sprouts, roasted garlic, honey-glazed carrots, olives, and pickles (the list is endless!) add a wonderful flavor to baked Camembert. When choosing a sweeter palette opt for fruits like grapes, baked pears, or even nuts for an extra crunch. Jams are also a great way to balance the creamy palette with its fruity sweetness.
You can never go wrong with baguettes, breadsticks, and crackers – the crispy or chewy texture is a great contrast to warm gooey cheese.
And of course, a honey drizzle is a classic camembert combination to top it all off.
Can you eat the rind/skin of Camembert?
When it comes to eating cheese, the most frequent question is whether to eat the rind or not. As a rule of thumb, if the rind looks completely different and seems more brittle than the actual cheese, it is better to leave it out of your palette but it largely depends on the taste. You can always take a bite to gauge the experience before committing to it.
Soft cheeses like Camembert and Brie tend to have a bloomy rind that has a mild yet pleasant taste. It is made up of Penicillium camemberti and is responsible for giving the Camembert its distinctive flavor. The rind is critical to the integrity of the cheese and as such Camembert experts insist on eating the cheese within two or three days of opening the rind.
How to store Camembert after opening it?
The best way to maximize the shelf life of any cheese is to ensure it’s refrigerated. When it comes to Camembert, a soft cheese, it largely depends on how you store it, and a well-stored Camembert can last 1-2 weeks.
An excellent way to let the cheese breathe is by wrapping it in parchment or cheese paper, never a cling wrap, and stored in its original wooden box. This stops the cheese from sweating and retains its flavor. When Camembert starts to go bad, it will develop a hardened texture around the edges, darken slightly in color, and come down with an off-smell. If you see mold growth that is not a part of the actual manufacturing process, it’s best to discard it altogether.
Can you freeze Camembert?
Most cheeses that are frozen tend to lose their texture but flavors and cooking properties remain unchanged. That being said, soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert should not be frozen as they tend to lose their moisture and it can affect their flavor. These cheeses have a high moisture content that is affected by the ice crystals, making them dry and unappetizing.
In some cases, Camembert cheese can be frozen but you have to be ready for it to lose its texture. The best way to freeze Camembert is by wrapping it in aluminum foil, then a layer of plastic wrap to keep the smell intact, and finally vacuum sealing it in a freezer bag. The seal reduces the fermentation time. When ready to eat, transfer the Camembert from the freezer to the refrigerator and defrost it for at least 24 hours or up to 48 hours.
Well, that's it! All you could ever want to know about Camembert cheese. If you ever visit Normandy it is a must to try several varieties!
How about you? Have you tried Camembert at home? How about in France? Do tell!
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