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Copyright © 2012
by Fred McMillin
Napoleon was so delighted with the cheese that he kissed the waitress in Normandy who first served it to him. Nameless at the time [early 1790s], the cheese was dubbed by The Little Corporal "Camembert," after the village of its origin. (Marquis & Haskell, The Cheese Book)
The Rest of the Story
Camembert's creator was a Normandy farmer's wife, Marie Harel. The nation agreed with Naploeon's assessment. Historians say it played a major role in the sensational rise of French gastronomy in the early 19th century (along with other newcomers like meringue, Cognac, and foie gras).
It is a soft, whole-milk disk-shaped cheese, smaller and thicker than the large, circular, soft Brie. There is a good reason for the comparison of the two. Norman Davies in A History of Europe tells us that fleeing the terror of the French Revolution, Brie-maker Abbe Gobert went through Normandy on his way to safety in England. "He stopped long enough in a village to show a farmer's wife what he knew about cheese-making. The village was called Camembert," (and you know who the farmer's wife was.) Among the tributes to Marie's achievement is an eight-foot obelisk just outside the village where the delicacy was created (see photo of my wife admiring it).
What wine do we serve with this national treasure? The conventional selection is a red Bordeaux or Burgundy. However, the New York Times points out that cheese tends to kill the nuances of a red wine. Instead, with Camembert it recommends a Chardonnay. Here's one of the best my panel has tasted recently.
'97 Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros
Camembert is not a physically strong cheese. Hence, it didn't achieve fame outside of France for a 100 years, since at first it was sold in a straw wrapping too fragile for long trips. Then, in 1890 one Monsieur Ridel invented a light, round wooden box that protected the soft cheese. Andre Simon reported, "Camembert soon was exported all over the world. And why do we have a story today involving Napoleon? He was born 230 years ago tomorrow.
This page created January 2000