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The history of the Camembert

A camembert

The Camembert is probably the most famous and the most popular French cheese in the world. Its success was so important over the years, that it was exported all over the world, and that it is now produced in various countries such as Italy, Switzerland, Japan, USA, Brazil...
Even if one dislikes it, one can't deny the important part of that cheese in the cheese-making history. Unfortunately, it is generally unrecognized, and one knows a little about its story, its making or the best way to relish it.
The web and these pages will offer you an unique opportunity to make disappear that lack of knowledge.
And now for something completely different...

 

 

At the beginning was Normandy...

Normandy map

...its region and its famous cows, but for most of us the history of camembert began with a French farmer: Marie Harel. In the middle of the French Revolution (1791, if we trust the oral tradition), she gave birth to a delicious cheese, which was named according to the name of the town she was living in:

Camembert city road sign

In fact, cheeses were produced in Camembert since at least 1680. For example, Thomas Corneille (the brother of the famous French writer) wrote in 1708 in his "General Geographic and Historical Dictionary", that every Monday on the Vimoutiers market, you could buy excellent cheeses from the Camembert area. Marie Harel had probably "just" improved the recipe, helped by a non-juring priest (Abbey Bonvoust) that she was hiding since 1790, and who gave her a secret about the preparation of cheese.

At the end of the XIXth century, railwails and steamboats spread all over Europe, which created new outlets for the camembert cheese in France and abroad. The Camembert producers were obviously quickly interested by these new opportunities but one problem remained: how to carry efficiently the camembert cheese... In 1890 the French engineer Ridel created a wood box to make this cheese carriage easier. Soon that simple and cheap idea became used by all the camembert producers.
The success of the camembert in those days deeply changed the social organisation of a large part of Normandy: "le pays d'Auge" (the Auge country).The milk production became the first agricultural production and in the same time, the rich farmers organized co-operative societies to collect milk from different farms.
This evolution probably changed the taste of the camembert and gave it the one we know today. At that moment, it also obtained its light yellow color.

The reputation of that cheese grew quickly and many other countries began to produce their own "Camembert". The Norman notables were at first quite happy of that unexpected success, but soon they became afraid of losing precious consumers and of letting the taste of their cheese be modified and its quality be lowered.Therefore they decided to create the "Syndicat des Fabricants du Véritable Camembert de Normandie" (Genuine Camembert of Normandy Makers Syndicate). It was inaugurated in 1909, by its first president M. Vignoboule, who then defined precisely that was a Norman camembert and how it should be made....

After World War II, new changes occured. The production of camembert, that was still realized by more than 1400 dairies spread in the whole Auge country, had to evolve to adapt itself to the increase of the consumption as well as the struggle to survive to the new competition. The first giant production factories were built and the first robot to make camembert was successfully tested.

 

Even if nowadays the societies are merging and evolving constantly, the producers of Camembert cheese have always tried to preserve the quality and also the fame of the camembert. Due to that action they obtained a "Label rouge", a french quality label in 1968. Further more on the 31th of August 1983 (and again the 29th of december 1986), the camembert received the "Appellation d'Origine Controlée" (AOC), a special brand given by the french government, to the producers who respect a high number of recommendations. This label was created to protect the original flavour of the camembert. Later it also received an AOP "Appellation d'Origine Protégée" a special brand given by the european community. Finaly a ''Syndicat interprofessionnel de défense de l'Appelation d'Origine Controlée" was created to promote that AOC.

The future of the camembert cheese in Normandy is still rather uncertain.Some of producers have decided to modify the standard way of producing to increase their productivity. For example, they have installed moulding robots, they treat the crude milk and even want to redefine the notion of crude milk. The others go on using crude milk (That imply to use costfull tests to ensure the quality and the safety of the milk), they keep on moulding manually the cheeses, and they want to preserve the quality and the diversity of the milk by using the traditionnal norman cows and their traditional food.
We hope that the honest needs of efficiency will not completely wipe out the fair demands of the customers that would like to preserve the camembert variety of flavours.

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