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The Persistence of Camembert Cheese

2022-08-11   ◆   4 minutes read
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Camembert cheese: it’s soft, it’s gooey, it’s maybe a bit stinky, but it’s legendary. What can you even say about the cheese that inspired Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory? Its melting capabilities literally changed art history! And similarly to art, this cheese reflects the history and culture around it in fascinating ways. See why it was Napoleon’s favorite cheese and how it became so controversial. Let’s melt back through time a bit and give this stinky cheese a moment in the sun… not the literal sun though!

A piece of bread being dipped in melted Camembert Cheese

What is Camembert Cheese?

Camembert is a soft creamy cheese that usually comes in a circular shape and has an edible bloomy white rind. As with many washed rind cheeses, camembert has a unique and strong smell, in this case, the smell is similar to dirty used socks. Thankfully the scent (which we’ll embrace describing from now on as “earthy”) is not so much a cause for concern as it is the result of the ripening process. This process takes no less than 21 days and the best time to enjoy the fruits of labour is around the 30 day mark.

Camembert fermier

A great upside to the mushroomy camembert smell is that it’s the result of fermentation and healthy bacteria. Camembert has a reputation for being good for digestion. This is because of its short chain fatty acids (fatty acids that help with numerous bodily functions), probiotic content, and low amount of lactose (0-1.8%). There is still testing that needs to be done on all the health benefits camembert has to offer, but having a quick dessert bite after a big meal sounds delicious enough to enjoy regardless.

What is the Difference Between Camembert and Brie?

If you’re casually looking at cheese boards, camembert and brie might sit beside each other looking almost identical. They’re both white and soft when squished. So, what’s the difference exactly? The process of making camembert is similar to that of brie. However, there are some big detours evident in their smells. Brie is made from cream which gives the cheese its creamy, almost buttery scent. Brie has a higher fat content (and resulting creamy taste) than its sister cheese, camembert, which is made from milk. The reason brie is spared from the strong scent camembert has is that while camembert is exposed to lactic starters five times throughout the ripening process, brie is only exposed to them once. 

Camembert: made with milk, lower fat percentage, exposed to fermentation started 5 times. Brie: Made with cream, higher fat percentage, exposed to fermentation starters once

Another difference is that although brie and camembert both come from France, their cultural impacts are vastly unique. Because of camembert’s tight-knit history in Normandy, it reflects the strong sense of tradition and ritual in its production process. In 1992, naming a cheese “Camembert de Normandie” became certified by the Appellation d’origine contrôlée or “controlled designation of origin” (also known as the AOC).

The AOC certification considers the geographical factors that go into the quality and taste of food and thus protects the quality. In the case of Camembert de Normandie, certification requires the cheese be made in Normandy with Normande cows. It needs to follow the traditional process of making the cheese, as well as the resulting cheese being the correct size and shape. These rules only apply to camembert followed by “de Normandie.” Other camembert still exists and attempts to mimic the result of this traditional process. Brie does not have the option of having AOC certification, which leads us to our next difference between the two cheeses…

An authentic camembert de normandie cheese cheese with the box opened
A certified traditional Camembert de Normandie (Cheese Etc.)

Camembert is Illegal

Interestingly, the AOC certification, or at least the traditional ingredients, makes camembert illegal in some countries (for example, the USA). And unlike the mention of the illicit cheese in our vegan cheese blog, this time it’s for the complete opposite reason. The traditional way of making camembert dates back to 1864, before Louis Pasteur discovered the health benefits of heating milk. The removal of harmful bacteria through heat (pasteurization) has become a huge debate among dairy farmers. Many modern-day cheese-makers and lovers insist that the best cheese is unpasteurized (raw). But the dangers of bacteria and even e-coli in unpasteurized dairy products have meant some countries remove this option entirely. 

 

Canada, for instance, has banned unpasteurized milk entirely, but cheese with it must be aged for over 60 days. Because of this, the majority of camembert manufacturing in North America is pasteurized. It is an easier process and cheaper. However, there are still some countries that stand strongly behind raw milk cheeses. After all, unpasteurized products make up 18% of France’s cheese sales. Remember, the coveted “Camembert de Normandie” name means that it is unpasteurized. So, is it safe to eat it? Read what Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D. from the McGill Office for Science and Society has to say.

A green box of Frauxmagerie vegan "botanic" camembert
Vegan camembert cheese (Botanic camembert)

At the moment, Camembert de Normandie is still thriving. The health concerns around raw milk have resulted in the vast majority of producers not using the traditional method. The choice of trying authentic camembert could be gone before we know it. Many camembert-makers say a crucial part of the cheese is the grass that the cows eat, and they say you cannot taste that in these new camemberts. Pasteurized camembert is still delicious, it’s just very different. And this may be sacrilegious to say (and even illegal in some places, like Turkey), but you can even enjoy vegan camembert from cashew or other plant-based milks. There is of course always a risk to eating traditional camembert. But it’s an important tradition in the life of the cheese and one that shouldn’t be forgotten amongst the delicious alternatives.

History of Camembert

As with many desserts, like brie and camembert that look or sound alike, if you dig a bit into their history, you’re bound to find a deeper connection between them. Although camembert has a bit of a hazy story up until 1791, it is actually said to have kind of come from the French town of Brie as well. A monk, Charles-Jean Bonvoust, fled Brie during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution to the small town of Camembert. The person who helped hide him was a farmer named Marie Herel. The mysterious part of this story is whether Marie adapted the traditional ways Charles-Jean taught her to make brie, or if he shared a secret recipe with her for camembert that already existed. There is also speculation that camembert was made as early as 1680 in Camembert and was only popularized by Marie and Charles-Jean. Either way, Marie is credited as the person who developed the traditional way of making camembert that is so treasured today.

A few blocks of camembert on a drying rack during one of the lactic starter additions
Camembert-making process (Cheese Making Supply Co.)

Another legend that popularized camembert was Napolean’s affection for it. The story goes that Napolean Bonaparte was served camembert cheese and loved it so much he requested it every single day. It’s even said he named the cheese! But as Salvador Dali can attest to, camembert melts at room temperature and was thus a difficult cheese to share with far-reaching parts of the country or much less the world. So, in 1890, an engineer known only as M. Ridel invented the iconic small wooden poplar box to protect the beloved camembert. And then it was ready for mass production. 

 

All this tradition, lore, and protection made camembert a beloved French cheese. And in World War II, it was given as rations to soldiers in France. This was really what brought camembert to the worldwide stage. People from all over the world tried this cheese and the demand has increased ever since. Camembert has a special place on cheese boards, and the love and respect are ever-growing.

Two blocks of cheese that look like camembert but have a darker rind.
Blue on the surface, creamy camembert-like inside (Naramata Bench Blue @ Poplar Grove Cheese)

Camembert has become a bit of a controversial cheese throughout its lifetime, but it’s wonderful to see people passionate about cheese. If you’re curious to try camembert for yourself, you can use Dessert Advisor’s search engine to find camembert cheese near you!

About the author

DessertAdvisor.com is an organization dedicated to the research of desserts, baked goods, and snacks. The community maintains one of the largest databases of dessert items and dessert places in Canada. 

With a mission to facilitate foodies’ search for their desired products, the site allows finding locations that dessert items are sold at, enhances knowledge on various treats (i.e., variety, flavours, health benefits, history, origins, etc.), and enables people to enjoy the wealth of life.

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