Tales of the origin of Camembert abound, all of them full of romantic drama. One popular version attributes its invention to Marie Harel, who allegedly named the cheese after her native village. She, in turn, (or so the story goes) gained the recipe from a priest fleeing persecution during the French Revolution in 1790. Marie agreed to hide the fugitive and in return he blessed her with the secret of a magnificent cheese.
Made from the milk of cows raised on the grasses of Normandy, this ivory delight with its creamy consistency is a favorite of many fine table. Its similarity to Brie, its royal cousin, is the result of using penicillium camemberti (or a related strain, penicillium candida) used to form the curds. It's then aged in the mold for about three weeks, producing a soft cheese.
The final product is typically molded into small disks called 'rounds', about 11 cm (4 in) wide by 4 cm (1.6 in) thick, weighing about 250g (about a half pound). Often wrapped in paper and sold in small wooden containers, it makes for a great gift.
In France it is often produced from unpasteurized milk, but in the U.S. there are severe legal restrictions on using unpasteurized milk. As a result, the cost is often more than many are willing to pay for the final product. Most Camembert produced in the U.S. is, therefore, made from pasteurized milk. The difference is subtle enough to escape the notice of all but connoisseurs.
Like many cheeses originating in a region of France, genuine Camembert is ensured by its AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) stamp of approval. The AOC system in France is used to guarantee that cheeses, wines and some other agricultural products actually do come from the region they are named after. Whether that guarantees a level of quality is a matter of some debate in cheese circles, as it is among wine connoisseurs.
But whether you acquire it on a vacation to France or from a farm near your city, you are very likely to have a wonderful eating experience. Crumbly even when fresh (unlike Brie which is usually soft), it is great all alone, atop a piece of excellent bread or served beside a slice of fish.
The actual history of Camembert goes back much further than the date of the lively story with which we began, but it makes for great storytelling while enjoying a bit of this delectable treat. Sometimes truth is not only stranger, but tastier than fiction. Real Camembert is a delight. After being given to French soldiers as part of their rations during WWI, its lasting fame was assured. And that's more than just a fairy tale.