Real Camembert cheese is known as “Camembert de Normandie“. Indeed, only cheese made in a narrowly prescribed fashion within a very particular area can legally be called Camembert de Normandie, its legally protected name. “Camembert” or “Camembert made in Normandy” or similar names are not protected and thus any cheese, made anywhere by any method can be called these names. Camembert de Normandie is a soft-paste cheese, with a downy crust, made with raw cow milk and in the shape of a small, flat cylinder weighing ~250 grams with a minimum fat content of 45%. However, there is much more to the story of real Camembert de Normandie.
In France the widely shared joke about Normans is their lack of decisiveness; they will never say “yes” or “no” but instead, “yes and no”. This habit is a product of hard-won wisdom that one is better off not to have all the eggs in a single basket. In the 17th century Normandie (Normandy) was a major fruit and veg producer but political upheaval disrupted supply chains resulting in famine. Animals to produce milk and meat were brought north in great number and variety in an effort to diversify local food production. The lesson was learned, diversity is insurance against disruption.
Cattle were interbred from the various types brought north with progeny being selected for meat, milk or labour, often a combination (neither yes nor no) over many generations. Selective breeding and the dominance of grasslands (>60% of agricultural land) in Normandie gave rise to the Normande Cow, a now recognized breed uniquely tailored to Norman grasslands. The breed’s bloodline can be traced back to cattle brought by Viking conquerors in the 9th and 10th centuries. Today it is raised predominantly for milk production but does enter the meat market too. It’s milk can be as high as 10% protein, a great production advantage for cheese makers. By comparison, Canadian Holstein cows (comprising 93% of the Canadian dairy herd) average 3.3% protein.
By the 1790s Camembert cheese had become a well known regional specialty with Normande cow milk recognized as yielding the finest Camembert cheese. Marie Harel, who ran a farm in the commune of Camembert, near Vimoutiers (Orne) is credited with “inventing” Camembert in collaboration with a priest from Brie who she was sheltering from the authorities who refused to take the oath at the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1792 (foreshadowing the Napoleonic Code which would arrive a decade later). Marie’s descendants continued her traditional production practices in the Auge Valley and before long the fame of the cheese had spread across Normandie, with a great uptick in production resulting.
With popularity comes monetary incentives for fraudulent production (a parallel story was unfolding in the Champagne region at the same time). In 1909 the Syndicat des Fabricants du Véritable Camembert de Normandie (Association of Authentic Camembert of Normandie Producers) was formed in order to promote and protect the production of authentic Camembert from the growing threat of fraudulent industrial knock-offs in the market. In 1980 the Syndicat applied for Appellation d’Origine (AOC) protection of the name Camembert de Normandie. On August 31 1983 the petition was granted and only members of the Syndicat who produced cheese to the exacting standards set out by the AOC (which are very far-reaching, overview below), were permitted to use the name Camembert de Normandie on packaging, in promotion etc.
Beyond the scope here, but very detailed records must be kept reflecting each individual cow, each milking event etc. For full details click here
Just east of pear cider’s holy city of Domfront is the small town of Champsecret (secret field). On the northern edge sits Ferme du Champ Secret on 180ha. The play on words is intentional, it is here where the secrets of the field manifest in what is by consensus, the most authentic Camembert de Normandie produced. Ferme du Champ Secret is one of only two farms that still produce organic, hay-fed Camembert de Normandie. Patrick Mercier, current president of the syndicat, longtime champion of authentic Camembert de Normandie and is the third generation to lead Ferme Du Champ Secret. The farm is fully organic certified, the herd is 100% Normande cows and the focus is entirely on maintaining the voice of the field, via the cows, in the cheese.
Microbiology is taken very seriously here. Not that it isn’t in any cheese manufacturing facility, but here the focus is a bit different. Whereas sterility is normally the name of the game, here it is preserving and amplifying the microbiological signature of the pastures – the secrets of the fields. Each of the farm’s pastures has a unique microbiological signature as sampled from the surface of the grasses (confirmed by numerous U of Caen studies at the farm). When the cows come to the milking parlour they, and in particular their utters, are covered in the field-specific microbiota. This means that as the cows are rotated through the pastures every week and with the change of season, the resulting cheese changes in step as the microbiota change with each pasture and season.
Great care is taken not to remove these ever-changing microbiological signatures during milking. For instance, the teats are cleaned with essential oil but not sterilized with iodine as is standard on industrial farms. The field biota inoculate the otherwise sterile milk during the milking. After milking the teats remain dilated for 30-60 minutes and so are dipped in vegetable oil which forms a physical barrier, blocking entry to bacteria or insects. The teat orifice contracts back to normal and the oil wears off soon after. The incidence of mastitis (inflammation or infection of udder tissue caused by physical trauma or microbe infection) has dropped 20-fold since this organic practice was adopted. The milk is never chilled below 12oC to preserve the bacteria. Processing begins within 12 hours to ensure maximum microbial expression in the cheese.
At Champ Secret, silage is not used at all, cows consume live grass all year. Cows that graze on grass produce milk with more protein, higher nutrient densities and more fat than silage-fed cows. Further, the fat molecules of grass-fed milk are longer and more fragile than those produced by silage-fed cows. The milk of grass-fed animals must be treated more gently if full flavour yielded by these longer, more complex chains is to be retained. Towards this end, there are no pumps that might break delicate milk fat chains and oxidize the milk to negatively affect flavour. All milk is moved by gravity alone.
Sunday’s are a day off (but the cows must be milked regardless). Rather than use “day old” milk that has lost much of its bacterial signature, liquid milk is sold direct to customers and production begins anew to make cheese with Monday’s fresh milk.
To the casual observer, the difference between “Camembert” and the PDO Camembert de Normandie is simply a set of rules observed by the latter. However, as Ferme du Champ Secret is so popular not just because it is still made by “the old ways” but because the voice of the land is retained in the cheese. Indeed, the cheese is quite literally alive and changes day to day, week to week and season to season. None of which would be possible if the pastures and the cows were not both fully thriving. Simply put, the internationally recognized superiority of Patrick Mercier’s cheese is a direct result of the biological and ecological integrity of the farm. Gastronomic quality and environmental health cannot be separated.
A good profile of La Ferme Du Champ Secret by Eater can be found here.
If you are a UVic student and find this interesting, you may be interested in the Terroir Field School, held every June in France in collaboration with ESA. We visit Ferme Du Champ Secret each year. Contact JPV for more info.
I and my students use quantitative analyses of food and wine production systems to reveal linkages between ecological and social sustainability, “quality”, and the primacy of place … “Ecogastronomy”
Dr. John Volpe