In today's Curious Cook column I write about a pasteurized-milk Camembert cheese here in the U.S. that tastes surprisingly like raw-milk Camemberts in France. It was designed by the French affineur Hervé Mons, an advocate of raw-milk cheese, to have the best flavor possible given the legalities and logistics of exporting cheeses to the U.S. market.
Camembert is the iconic French cheese, well into its third century, and yet even the most "traditional" cheeses being made today are very different from the Camembert of a hundred years ago. The fascinating story of Camembert's origins and evolution is told in Pierre Boisard's Camembert: A National Myth, published by the University of California Press in 2003. I gave a brief version of one important moment in my original draft of On Food & Cooking, but it was cut from the published book. Here it is, to give a taste of the story that Boisard tells in detail.
Enter the microbiologists! Enlisted around 1895 by agriculturalists in Meaux to help make the ripening of Camembert’s cousin, Brie, more predictable, a manufacturer of millstones named Georges Roger sought advice from the Institut Pasteur, and then succeeded in purifying and patenting a mold culture that never turned blue or green; it remained pure white. Brie cheesemakers adopted it rapidly. Camembert makers were reluctant, and backed up by Professor P. Mazé of the Institut Pasteur, who found in 1905 that the traditional mold was indispensable to high quality. “P. candidum does not expose the cheesemaker to the many inconveniences that the use of P. album holds in store . . . [however] this effort has not produced good results in practice. The cheeses that carry P. candidum are ripened only with difficulty and do not possess the finesse of the true cheeses of Brie and Camembert. They are covered with a thick bed of white spores that could be mistaken for a bed of plaster.”
Eventually, however, plaster white won out: it made all Camemberts look good, and apparently urban consumers also liked the hygienic, antiseptic appearance and perhaps the less rural flavor. It turned out that the white mold attacked the cheese protein relatively weakly; the green mold’s enzymes were more active and produced a stronger flavor. Its color was not significant in itself, but rather was a kind of acidity indicator; it grew and greened fastest when the cheese surface was too acid to allow proper breakdown of its proteins; but if the ripening room encouraged yeasts and bacteria to grow first, they created desirable alkaline conditions that retarded the mold greening.
Our standard white Camembert and Brie, then, are barely a century old; and what was once a slow, spontaneous maturation of 7 to 10 weeks has been telescoped into 3 or 4. Their absence of color signals the loss of their original character.