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Camembert—delectably fragrant, creamy-centered, neatly boxed—is the most popular and most famous French cheese. Originally made by hand in the Norman countryside, it is now mass-produced internationally, yet Camembert remains a national symbol for France, emblematic of its cultural identity.
In this witty and entertaining book, Pierre Boisard investigates the history of Camembert and its legend. He considers the transformation of France's cheese-making industry and along the way gives a highly selective, yet richly detailed history of France—from the Revolution to the European Union. Camembert: A National Myth weaves together culinary and social history in a fascinating tale about the changing nature of food with implications for every modern consumer.
As the legend goes, by coincidence, grand design, or clever marketing, the birth of Camembert corresponds almost exactly in time with the birth of the French republic.
In this book, republicans and Bonapartists, revolutionaries and priests are reconciled over the contents of a little round box, originating a great myth and a great nation. The story of the cheese's growing fame features Napoleon, Louis Pasteur, the soldiers of the First World War, and many others.
Beneath this intriguing story, however, runs a grittier tale about the history of food production. We learn, for example, how Camembert became white—a topic that becomes a metaphor for the sanitation of the countryside—and how Americans discovered the secrets of its production. As he describes the transformation of the Camembert industry and the changing quality of the cheese itself, Boisard reveals what we stand to lose from industrialization, the hallmark of the past century.
Today, small producers of raw-milk, ladle-molded Camembert are fighting to keep their tradition alive. Boisard brings us to a new appreciation of the sensual appeal of a lovely cheese and whets the appetite for a taste of the authentic product.
THE AMERICAN AND CAMEMBERT
Sunday, 11 April 1928: Vimoutiers, a small village in Normandy, is having a celebration. The streets are thronged with a lively crowd made up of the local population and others who have flocked into town from the surrounding countryside. The Eastertide fair with its carnival attractions is not the only reason for the festive atmosphere, for the people have gathered to witness a unique event. They are awaiting the arrival of Alexandre Millerand, former president of the Republic and senator from the Orne. The well-known statesman is to unveil a monument to the memory of Marie Harel, the local heroine who did so much for Normandy and for France.
It is a cloudy day, presaging the showers that will soon, if today's mild weather continues, water the abundant grassy fields for which the region is famous. The excitement builds as President Millerand emerges from the largest building in the village, Sauraire's garage, where a banquet for three hundred invited guests has just come to an end. He is accompanied by all of the region's notables, including Dr. Dentu, the mayor of Vimoutiers, and Joseph Saffrey, the chairman of the Syndicat des Fabricants du Véritable Camembert de Normandie (Associated Producers of Authentic Norman Camembert, or SFVCN). The official party proceeds ceremoniously to the covered marketplace, where the monument dedicated to Marie Harel has been erected. In silence, President Millerand moves toward the statue, which depicts a farm woman in traditional Norman dress: bodice, apron, wooden shoes, and the local lace headgear with its descending panels down the back of the neck. Around her neck hangs a cross. On her right hip, she holds a copper milk jug, known in the local patois as a "cane." Behind her is a bas-relief panel depicting a farmyard, at the top of which a few words trumpet the heroine's claim to fame: "To Marie Harel, Creator of Camembert Cheese." Below, the words "To the Norman Farm-Woman" include those humble laborers in this tribute being paid to the most famous among them.
Thus, in that republican ceremony on 11 April 1928, was Camembert elevated to the status of national symbol. At the time, the event had few repercussions outside the region known as the Auge, and it was soon forgotten. Yet the cheese's official celebration by a former president of the Republic gave birth to a modern national myth in which Camembert was to become intricately associated with France itself. Since that day, Camembert has become France's foremost cheese, and France has become the country of Camembert. This stereotype, which is sometimes annoying but which cannot be denied, is thus revealed to be of fairly recent origin, whereas it is generally thought to have existed forever. And what is even more surprising is that the initiative behind it did not come from a Frenchman but from an American. It is a tale worth telling.
The Emissary from the New World
At around 3 P.M. on 15 March 1926, an unknown man knocked on the door of the pharmacy in Vimoutiers. The man, his dark hair flecked with white, wore an elegant checked suit and spoke French with some difficulty. Auguste Gavin, the pharmacist, was also the deputy mayor. With a M. David, a friend and local engineer, he had been making plans for the forthcoming Easter fair. His surprise at the arrival of his unexpected visitor increased when he learned the stranger's purpose. The man, Dr. Joseph Knirim, claimed to be American and had come not to have a prescription filled, but rather to find out the schedule of trains to Camembert. He expressed a desire to go to that village to pay homage to the inventor of the eponymous cheese, whom he presumed was buried there. Gavin could not believe his ears. Camembert was a village with a population of three hundred, perched high on a hill and difficult to get to, and everyone knew that it had no train service. A foreigner might think that Camembert would be accessible by train, but only a madman would cross the Atlantic with the sole aim of honoring an almost-unknown Norman farmer's wife! Stupefied, and disconcerted by Knirim's weird French, Gavin was unable to understand why the American was so set on seeing Mme Harel's tomb. In an attempt to make himself better understood, Knirim took from his cardboard suitcase a document printed in French. Astounded, Gavin read the following:
Savarin, the famous epicure, said that it was more worthwhile to invent a new dish than to discover a new star. How much more precious, therefore, must be the invention of a new dish of equal benefit to both the sick and to those who enjoy good health. This is the great merit of the late Madame Harel's discovery. I have traveled thousands of miles to come to honor her at the monument erected in her memory, and had I known the history of Camembert cheese earlier, I would have made this pilgrimage long ago.
France possesses many cheeses, all of which are excellent, but when it comes to digestibility, Madame Harel's cheese, the "véritable Norman Camembert," is surely the best. Years ago, I suffered for several months from indigestion, and Camembert was practically the sole nourishment that my stomach and intestines were able to tolerate. Since then, I have sung the praises of Camembert, I have introduced it to thousands of gourmets, and I myself eat it two or three times a day. I shall never tire of describing the value of this wonderful product of your town, and in my efforts to convince the doubters, I have asked them to engage in an impartial trial. May Camembert's popularity increase the world over and may your town produce other benefactors of mankind to equal Madame Harel. In humble expression of my great admiration for Camembert cheese, which is shared by thousands of friends in the United States, I have brought with me across the waters this wreath of flowers to lay on the monument of our common benefactress. May the French and American flags be forever united in the service of mankind.
JOSEPH KNIRIM, March 1926
Gavin and David were impressed by their visitor's determination, but somewhat abashed by having to admit to a foreigner their ignorance as to the exact site of Marie Harel's grave; nonetheless, they were flattered by this boost to their pride as Normans and they offered to help Knirim. First, they must find Mme Harel's burial site. Although the pair had of course heard of Camembert's inventor, they were unaware of the location of her resting place. Alert to the implications that this surprising American can fondness for the cheese could have for the reputation of his region, Dentu set his office and all his acquaintances to work to glean information about Marie Harel. Upon questioning the inhabitants of Camembert, it was discovered that the Harels were supposed to have lived at a farm called Beaumoncel at the time of the French Revolution. Some even maintained that the family had given refuge to a recusant priest who was said to have passed on to them the secret of making a certain kind of cheese, supposedly the one now known as Camembert. The father-in-law of the mayor of Vimoutiers recalled having been told by a well-to-do farmer named Paynel, while they were hunting together, that Paynel had served a Camembert to Emperor Napoleon III on the occasion of his visit to the region. Paynel had also told him that he made his own Camembert according to the recipe handed down to him by his mother, Marie Harel. Since Paynel had come from Champosoult, the village adjacent to Camembert, Dentu believed that both he and his parents might be buried there.
And indeed, there was an impressive Paynel family tomb near the entrance to the tiny cemetery in Champosoult. On the stone was engraved the name of Marie Harel followed by two dates: 8 April 1781-14 May 1855. On 17 March 1926, therefore, Knirim laid a wreath of gilt laurel leaves adorned with the French and American flags at the Paynel family tomb, a tribute to Normandy from the United States of America.
His mission accomplished, Knirim then intended to set out for Plzen in Czechoslovakia, in order to pay homage to that region, where they produced a beer that, along with Normandy's Camembert, he believed had cured him of his stomach ailment. However, on 18 May, prior to his departure, he was entertained by the inhabitants of Vimoutiers. The owners of the Point de France hotel held a sumptuous lunch in his honor to which they also invited the mayor and his deputies. When dessert arrived, Knirim rose to thank his hosts and, in his shaky French, said:
Gentlemen, there are many statues throughout the world, but there are few great benefactors of mankind like Madame Harel. I beseech you to raise a memorial to her. I am not wealthy, but I shall subscribe ten dollars to that end, and I shall add the contributions of three friends whom I treated and who were also cured with this same medicine, the "véritable Norman Camembert."
After making his statement, Knirim handed Gavin a twenty-dollar bill. Before leaving Vimoutiers for Plzen, Knirim also visited Émile Courtonne's Camembert plant at Saint-Germain-de-Montgommery, near the village of Camembert itself. Then he departed and was never to be seen again. The inauguration of the statue eventually took place in the absence of the man initially responsible for its erection, for shortly before the ceremony, Dentu received word from the French embassy in New York that Knirim had passed away.
Camembert was well-known long before Knirim made the figure of Marie Harel known to the French. The dedication of a monument to the presumed inventor of Camembert did not increase consumption of the cheese; at the most, it added to the reputation of Norman produce. However, the Knirim effect is not to be measured in kilograms of Camembert sold but rather by its impact on the sphere of the imagination, in the realm of symbolism. The celebration of Marie Harel, the inventor who was reinvented after 130 years of obscurity, was to change the image of her cheese. Although by the 1920s Camembert was already the most widely consumed cheese in France, it was still but one among many. It may have been the most familiar, but it was also one of the least prestigious, a plebeian cheese in comparison to Roquefort, which could boast of a two-thousand-year lineage. The glorification of its creator gave Camembert a unique status that set it apart from other cheeses and made it stand out. From that time on, it acquired a personality all its own. Now, everyone knew that the cheese was Norman and that it had been created by a clever woman toward the end of the eighteenth century, and both of those merits raised it from the somewhat banal status to which it had been relegated ever since it had begun to be produced in large quantities in regions outside Normandy. Its popularity piqued the interest of the French, who wanted to know about Marie Harel and the circumstances surrounding her invention.
But although Marie Harel now had a statue, almost nothing was known about her. Such ignorance was unconscionable. The woman's background had to be made known, and because there were no facts, facts had to be created. In becoming famous, Marie Harel was to find herself endowed with not only a past but also a host of tales recounting various versions of her invention of Camembert and its apotheosis. None of these anecdotes created to support the "facts" were ever recounted in the conditional tense. Each version purports to be historically correct. Should we deal with this body of tales, almost all of which include the same characters, with the critical eye of a historian and therefore brush them aside? Such an attitude might well seem justified for at least two reasons. First, these little tales are not worthy of being taken as serious history; second, a knowledge of the exact circumstances surrounding the invention of Camembert may not really be all that important. After all, the stakes involved in such an investigation seem very small. If we adopt this somewhat high-handed attitude, why waste time trying to make sense of the tangled versions about the invention of Camembert? Yet, all the same, the legendary account of the cheese's invention does deserve further attention because it is one of the basic myths of the French nation. It may seem somewhat eccentric to find elements of a national identity in a box of Camembert. However, no one will deny that Camembert has indeed become a national symbol. We may smile at this, but we must also-while continuing to smile-give serious attention to the fact. Furthermore, the fact that the legend tells us that Camembert was invented in 1791, at the very moment that the French nation was also being born, raises questions about that very opportune coincidence.
The raising of the statue to the memory of Marie Harel was the consecration of Camembert's renown. It was also the moment when the myth began to take shape. Regional oral tradition, family veneration, and the imagination of local historiographers came together to concoct the tale of the invention of Camembert. Eager to show originality, each new narrator, seizing on locally available materials, constructed his or her own version. By superimposing the various versions of the myth, and by setting aside the less frequently mentioned events, retaining only those that are part of the common fund of knowledge, a story begins to take shape, one that I shall relate in my own way, thus becoming a part of the narrative chain.
THE MYTH AND ITS ORIGINS
Camembert, the flower of French cheeses, is said to have been created at a time of revolutionary turmoil, thanks to the clandestine combination of a Norman farmer's wife and the arts of a priest from the Brie region. During the great upheaval that produced the French nation, the fortuitous coming together of two regional traditions is said to have brought forth a new cheese in a country already possessed of several hundreds. The inaugural scene occurred in 1791 at the manor of Beaumoncel in Camembert, a small Norman village in the Auge, where Marie Fontaine met her husband, Jacques Harel. Although the couple had resided in the village of Roiville since their marriage, they were often found at the manor house, where Marie's father and his second wife lived. In those troubled times, the farm family of Beaumoncel offered refuge to a recusant priest. This clandestine priest, observing Marie Harel in the process of making cheese in the traditional Auge manner, suggested that she try the method used in his native region to produce the cheese known as Brie. Thus it came to pass that, making Brie in a mold used to produce Livarot, Marie Harel chanced to invent Camembert. Of course, the secret then had to be handed down to subsequent generations.
Excerpted from camembert by Pierre Boisard Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface. Opening the Box|
|1||A Myth Is Born||1|
|2||Marie Harel and Her Descendants||25|
|3||Camembert Goes National||69|
|4||The Reign of the Great Families||116|
|5||The War of the Two Camemberts||160|
|6||The Image of Camembert||196|
|7||Permanence of the Myth||221|