How is it possible for a cheese produced in 360 million wheels every year in France be headed for extinction?
How can this cheese be endangered when it is quite popular all around the world – in the US ranks ninth in a survey conducted by pickle maker Branston in 2015 – and it’s the second most popular cheese at French markets?
The answer can simply be stated like this: there is regular Camembert and there is genuine Camembert, with the latter being in danger.
The Two Camemberts
Camembert has its origins in the north of France, Normandy to be specific. In fact, it’s one of the popular cheeses from the area. For the Camembert connoisseur, there is a difference between the actual cheese produced in Normandy and the one usually sold in stores.
Much like how real Champagne needs to be produced in the region it is named after, all the cheesemakers who can boast of creating genuine Camembert are in Normandy. Real Camembert is marked with a French Protected Designations of Origin stamp, a label that tells buyers that an item was made in the historically accurate way in a specific region of France. This cheese is called Camembert de Normandie and it is increasing in scarcity.
For Camembert to be PDO stamped, it has to be made from unfiltered raw milk from cows from France’s Normandy province. The fat content of the milk needs to be at least 38% as well. The cows also need to be fed a strict diet: the grass and hay they eat should only be from the local area. There’s an even stricter procedure for handling the milk: it should be ladled by hand into a specific mold in four or more layers; that milk then needs to be transported at a distance no more than what the cows traverse when finding grass to eat.
The Camembert found in other places in France and particularly outside the country are not produced in the same manner. In fact, you can count the makers of authentic Camembert in just one hand: Domaine de Saint Loup, Fromagerie Durand, Le Ferme du Champsecret, Pierre-Levasseur, Graindorge, Fleuron du Plessis and Gillot-Noir.
This lack of makers is threatening the existence of real Camembert.
But why are there only a few genuine Camembert makers? This can all be traced back to the Camembert War of 2007.
A Brief History of the Camembert War
A number of large-scale Camembert makers including Isigny-Saint-Mere and Lactalis went to court to ask for pasteurized milk to be used in the creation of the cheese because it would be cheaper and more can be produced. Small producers argued for the old way to remain. A year later, the government decided that only raw milk should be used to create PDO-stamped Camembert. The big-name producers still make their own version of Camembert but a connoisseur could tell that it’s not an equal substitute for the real thing.
What can be done to save a dying type of cheese then? Francis Percival offers a solution in the book Reinventing the Wheel, which is concerned with single-farm cheeses. He says that in order for a rare breed to survive, it must be eaten. This means enjoying even the pasteurized version and if time and money provides, travel to the Normandy region to savour the real deal.