I am an avowed cheese fanatic. I still have to find the one type of cheese I dislike and no quantity has ever been deemed enough. Ok, in the interest of full disclosure I have to state that once, I ingested -and soon after expectorated- a small gob of Norwegian brown cheese. But then I passionately believe that in this case the term cheese is being used very loosely. It is more of a ‘caramel gloop of uncertain Nordic origins’ and somebody should probably take the Norwegians to court for deceptive marketing.
But I digress. The point I am trying to make here is that cheese and I are BFFs. Which is why, whenever I take a short break from this tedious city-life of ours, I prefer to retreat to bovine-infested regions that excel in the production of cheeses (Norwegian definition excepted). There I roam the pastures and stuff myself with as much of the substance as possible: an activity otherwise known in culinary circles as ‘tasting’. My most recent foray was in the land of Norman cows.
Out of the several hundred cheeses produced in France (estimates vary from 350 to 1000, although I still hope there are new species to be discovered), quite a few are produced in Normandy. Sadly, my limited time imposed a choice. After a period of troubled reflection and specialised therapy I settled on three: Camembert, Livarot and Pont-l’Évêque.
Before locating the village of Camembert we haplessly drove around in circles for a few days. Finally, exhausted and badly in need of a shower, we gave in to the GPS’s instructions and had to accept that those three buildings huddled together on top of the hill do indeed qualify as the village that churns out one of the world’s best-know cheeses. Rumours have it that there exist around 200 ‘Camembertais’ and these are vastly outnumbered by 200,000 cattle. But while I can vouch for the presence of the latter, I only rely on hearsay as to the existence of the former. The one person we stopped to ask for directions in the village spoke to us in Dutch!
The instructions received led us a couple of kilometres away from Camembert, to the closest fromagerie. (You’ve got to love the French! If we left it all to the English I would be using jarring words like ‘Cheese Factory’ or outright confusing ones like ‘Dairy’!) This turned out to be the small farm of Nicolas Durand with its 60 heads of cattle; presumably together with the rest of their appendages. The farm offers a guided tour and you can even see the cows being milked. Alternatively, if you turn up in the afternoon, like we did -which is way too late to watch men in white squeezing bovine nipples- you can watch the activity on a video. That’s how I learnt that the lovely ripened surface of the Camembert, called croûte (French for crust and not to be confused with crotte, French for dropping) is the result of a fungus sprayed all over the cheeslets. For a few days the spores propagate, macerate, copulate or do whatever else spores do when they encounter cow extract and hey presto the lovely Camembert is born.
How one woman in 1791 managed to discover all this by herself remains a mystery to me. The anecdote is that she heard it from a priest. I am not qualified to speculate about the divinity of the inspiration but tasting Durand’s Camembert settles the issue concerning the outcome!
Incidentally, 5 km or so north of Camembert lies the quiet town of Vimoutiers (under no circumstance is one to invert the “o” and the “i”) where we had a lovely lunch at Le Hérisson. I heartily recommend this restaurant. The Camembert Croustillant, with pieces of walnut and apple, had me mumbling to myself and, I have to say, was much more satisfying that watching extendible rubbery udders.
Thankfully, plotting a course to the town of Livarot proved much easier. It lies 15 km north of Camembert and with 2300 names on its address book Livarot is more immediately recognisable as a significant centre of human habitation. The international notoriety of its cheese, however, is inversely proportional to its demographics. This is actually quite unfair, since the Livarot (the cheese not a resident) is much tastier than its milder cousin. Some would even describe it as ‘pungent’. Whatever you call it, I love it. Possibly because to my uncouth taste buds, the more a cheese tastes like pickled socks the better it is.
So, anyway, if you ever stumble upon Livarot (the village not the cheese) the Fromagerie Graindorge makes for a good stop. Graindorge doesn’t own any farms and or cows – it just buys the milk and makes cheese, which makes it more adaptable to the English term: Cheese factory. This being France, though, the essentially industrial place still manages to exude an air of savoire faire and produit du terroir, and as such it is worth a visit, especially the factory walkthrough. This is a winding corridor interspersed by vast glass windows through which you can observe the hustle and bustle of the production floor, the languidity of the lab technician playing online solitaire and, if you stay long enough, the mould growing on the trays of finished cheeses stacked in the cellar. It is like one of those aquariums that have a glass tunnel, with the exception that instead of manta rays and sharks swarming around, you have people in white milling about and cylinders of creamy cheese rolling by.
Although both the Livarot and Camembert cheeses come in similar shapes and both have soft cores, there is not much chance that anyone with half a functioning taste bud can mistake the two. But on the off-chance, the Livarotais also encircle their product with 3 to 5 strips of reedmace. In fact, in the aquarium there were people employed to carry out this highly impractical task: binding the cheese in dried strips of dead vegetation. Still, it’s one of the cute, little things that makes France stand out in culinary traditions and keeps its trade unions happy.
Those paying closer attention to their cheese might also notice that the crust of the Livarot is yellower and stickier that that of the Camembert, which is chalkier and white. I have it on good authority this is not owed to that fact that the Livarotais are dirtier people, but simply due to the choice of mold they inflict on their cheeses – a fact some might be tempted to qualify as “equally dirty”. Be that as it may, Camembert is “Soft-ripened” and Livarot is “Wash-ripened”. What counts, though, is that both can be consumed with ridiculous amounts of red wine. I can assure you that after a while the difference won’t matter anymore. Which is why I never eat cheese and drive!
Our last stop on the journey was Pont-l’Évêque. Technically we cheated, because we tasted the Pont-l’Évêque cheese already in Livarot. Thankfully we somehow got away with it and nobody stoned us upon arriving at Pont-l’Évêque: possibly because we put on an inane smile and entertained them with our quality of French. They laughed heartily, slapping their thighs and pointed out our “petit accent” – which is diplomatic French-speak from “what zee foque are zey sayeeng?!
There is absolutely nothing vaguely episcopal about Pont-l’Évêque, but with a population of around 4,000 humans (incidentally why don’t we use the term ‘human heads’ here?) the place firmly distinguishes itself as a town. Having already tasted the cheese elsewhere we limited our visit here to a Fête du Fromage (Cheese Festival) that was being held in special marquee tents in the town centre. The festival turned out to be a veritable orgy of all things French and edible, including macaroons, prunes from Agen, stuffed snails and, bizarrely, funny-looking people parading in purple capes in front of a stand proclaiming them as La Confrérie des Chaveliers du Pont-l’Évêque. Given the theme of the festival, they were probably edible too. But they were clearly past their sell-by date and most likely chewy, so I passed. Moreover, I was afraid that tasting morsels of old people might be even considered illegal in France. One never knows!
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Photo credits: André Corrado