Camembert: What A Priest, My Best Friend, And Napoleon Have In Common

Q. What kind of cheese would you use to lure a bear out of its cave?
A. Camembert, of course. (“C’mon Bear!”)

Howdy folks. Welcome to the inaugural edition of the cheesiest Hello Giggles column on the block. By “cheesy,” I refer to both the subject matter and my terrible jokes, of which there will be many. To kick things off, I want to talk about Camembert. Don’t tell Jules, my best friend/lifelong partner-in-crime, but I’m also going to let you in our all-time favourite Best Thing Ever to make for munching on a girls’ night in.

Camembert is of the most widely-known cheeses the world over, but is in fact a relative latecomer to the illustrious ranks of French farmhouse cheese. The story goes that a Normandy woman named Marie Harel first made it in 1791, with the help of a priest she had saved from the guillotine. (The priest was supposedly from Brie, the home of that other most famous bloomy-rinded delight.) While there is evidence that Camembert actually existed in the area as far back as 1680, Harel and her priest may still have contributed to its development, and in any case provide a good aul story. By 1855, the cheese had been introduced to Napoleon, who declared himself a fan; the name stuck once he was informed that it hailed from the small Normandy town of Camembert.

Camembert was originally made using raw (unpasteurised) cows’ milk; today, true raw milk “Camembert Normandie,” is made only within a strictly-specified area in France, and is protected by both AOC and PDO statuses. Most of the Camembert you’ll find in the shops is now made from pasteurised milk, due to health and safety regulations of dubious necessity; in America, particularly, soft raw milk cheeses are disallowed entry into the country. This is a shame, because the use of raw milk really lets a cheese go wild, displaying a more intense depth of flavour (this is a favourite rant of mine so, if you’re interested in raw milk, stay tuned over the coming weeks for more information, strongly opinionated rambling, and many extravagant hand gestures. You’ll have to imagine that last part.)

Camembert is a bloomy-rind cheese, small and round in shape; the rind is thin and white, often with markings of varying yellows or greys. Inside, the paste is a pale yellow, and is hard, crumbly and fairly insipid before the cheese is ripe. The ripening process is short, however, with the cheese reaching its best after just 30-35 days and, once your Camembert is mature, the centre softens into a runny, creamy, seductively-gooey mess. The French know this stage of perfect ripeness as being “a point”. Traditionally-made raw milk Camembert has a distinctively heavy, earthy, mushroomy odour; this is more subdued in pasteurised versions. The flavour is mild, with delicate butter, mushroom and nutty notes.

Camembert is most famously paired with fresh baguettes, and that combination is classic for a reason – that reason being, it’s damn good. This cheese is also a staple of many a cheeseboard, sitting happily alongside harder, older cheeses, or some lovely stinky blues. It goes beautifully with fruit, jams, chutneys and honeys, but holds hands equally well with savoury flavours like salty proscuitto.

The following recipe is a simple alternative, courtesy of Jules and I. We’re both happy cheese addicts, and as such we are firm believers that this is, definitively, the Best Thing Ever to make for a girls’ night in. This will mend broken hearts, soothe unemployment problems, and provide energy for endless discussions on how you both still hate Kelly from Beverly Hills 90210 because of what she did to Brenda in Season Three (yes, I know it was 20 years ago. We’re still not over it). It is so good that it could quite potentially broker world peace, although if you were Team Kelly back in 1993 then you should probably still stay away from my girls’ night. In any case, there aren’t many things in this world that are better than melted cheese. This is superbly sinful and rich; you may need to undo your jeans button afterwards, but sometimes that just has to be done. It is totally worth it.

Oozy Baked Camembert

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 200°C/390°F. Start with a nice ripe Camembert, packaged in the traditional round wooden box. Open the box, unwrap the cheese, and pop it, naked, back into its box.
  2. Use the point of a sharp knife to stab a few slits in the top of the cheese. Drizzle over a small glug of olive oil and rub it into the top of the Camembert. Slice a garlic clove into a few fat slices, and stick them into the holes. If you have fresh rosemary or thyme handy, prod a few sprigs in too. Pour in a little splash of white wine, and crack over some sea salt and black pepper.
  3. Pop the lid back on the box and lash it into the oven for about 15 minutes. After this, the heart and soul of your Camembert will have melted into a mini-fondue. Use a knife to slice the top of the rind off, but be careful because burns from melted cheese are very, very painful. Seriously. I never learn.
  4. Dig in immediately with chunks of fresh, crusty baguette (or good garlic bread), scooping up the hot, oozing cheese and chowing down on one of the most simple, but delicious, treats you’ll ever make. If you put this on the table with a bottle of sparkling wine, or a light, fruity red, there is a real danger that your girlfriends may never leave your house.

Also good to try:

  • Cambozola, a mild and creamy crossbreed between Camembert and Gorgonzola. If you’re looking to get into blue cheese, this is a good place to start.
  • Cooleeney is a bloomy-rind cheese made here in Ireland, from raw cows’ milk.. It’s in the same style as Camembert, but tastes noticeably different: a good illustration of what a profound effect locality has on cheese.

If any of you have some thoughts on Camembert, bears, priests, Napoleon, Kelly vs. Brenda, or girls’ night comfort foods, I’d love to hear them; feel free to lash me a comment below.