November 16, 2006

Camembert: In search of a decent one in Chicago


A few images of the past…and realities of Today 

  I still have a vivid memory of what the “clochards” (hoboes and homeless people) in French towns in the mid-fifties ate while sitting on public benches located on street sidewalks, in squares and parks, or in the Parisian Metro (subway). They invariably cut pieces of “gros pain” (large pieces of slightly grayish white bread that some bakeries sold by the weight in those days) or slices of baguette with their old Opinel flick-knives, and spread some cheap canned pâté, or ate it with saucisson sec (dry pork sausage). They washed that down with cheap “gros rouge” (a very dark ordinary red wine) directly from the one liter bottle that they kept either in the pocket of their coat or under the bench. I remember the two main brands of these terribly bad red wines, Geveor and Kiravi, because during my student years, they were sometimes the only ones I could afford on financial crisis days. Sometimes they alternated the pâté (or saucisson) with a triangular piece of camembert cheese that they picked directly from its typical wooden box. Quite often the camembert was either very runny because it was too ripe or even slightly decayed if they had picked it up from a grocery store’s disposal bin, and you could smell its pungent odor. And in those days it was not uncommon to find tiny maggots in it. But sometimes, when it was a very cheap camembert, it was all too white and its interior was anything but creamy as it should have been. Its texture and color reminded me of plaster. At home my mother in those days was often buying camembert “made in Thierache”, another dairy producing area 150 miles Northeast of Paris because it was much cheaper than the “real” camembert de Normandie. It was in the late fifties that large co-op dairy groups started to produce camembert and brie in an industrial way in geographical zones other than Normandy. As a matter of fact, camembert was always considered the king of cheeses in France, and until recently was the second most popular cheese (after Emmental) among French consumers. But nowadays, busy younger French families have a tendency to buy more and more often industrially processed milder pasteurized cheeses, including camemberts that they know will stay fresh, firm, mild, and sweet smelling in their fridge for quite a while. And they buy from a refrigerated shelf at the supermarket, rather than at the small traditional mom and pop-owned “fromagerie” (cheese shop) down their street. As a matter of fact, in 2005, 89% of all camemberts were sold in France in supermarkets and only 3% in small “fromageries” shops. It is mainly older people who will ask their “fromager” in these small shops to choose for them a good quality authentic camembert de Normandie au lait cru. And they will ask for a camembert “à coeur”, meaning ripe all the way to the heart of the cheese.

So, what is an authentic camembert of Normandie, and how does it compare with a pasteurized camembert? Legends and facts

According to a well-preserved semi-legendary story, it is a young lady by the name of Marie Harel, who lived in the village of Vimoutiers, near Camembert, in the department (geographical district) of Orne, in Normandy, who was the first to give the famous cheese its modern form around 1791. The secret formula to produce the rind was given to her by a catholic priest from the region of Brie (another cheese producing area about 30 miles south-east of Paris) whom she had sheltered on her farm when he was trying to avoid swearing allegiance to the new republican government issued from the revolution. In fact, cheeses had been made in that area, the “Pays d’ Auge” of Normandy, a country of rich meadows and apple trees, since the 16th century. But the concept of adding a bacteria to the surface of the cheese after salting and before its drying phase to provide its specific aroma during the maturing process and help to obtain this marvelous and edible “bloomy” rind, can probably be dated just after the French revolution. But it will take until 1890 for the camembert cheeses to attain national and international recognition, when a French engineer named Ridel invented the round box made of light poplar wood that allowed camemberts to be stored and transported more easily. These boxes are still used in 2006.

The authentic “camembert au lait cru de Normandie” (raw milk camembert) had to wait until 1983 to be granted the official AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée-Controlled Designation of Origin) mark by the French Government. This AOC implies that the camembert is made from milk coming exclusively from one of the departments of Normandy (the 3 main milk producing ones are Orne, Calvados, and Manche) and is produced according to specific processes. For example it has to be “moulé à la louche en 5 louches successives déposées toutes les 45 minutes” (hand-poured in a mold with a ladle 5 times in intervals of 45 minutes)  

How is it made? It takes a little more than three weeks to 
produce an edible authentic camembert 

First the raw milk is collected and its temperature should not exceed the normal human body temperature. It is poured into vats called “bassines normandes”. Its curdling process is initiated by the addition of rennet. Then the curdled milk is poured, with the help of a special ladle, by hand and very gently, in five passes, into perforated molds to allow a natural drainage. This process can take up to 4 or 5 hours. Then, it is removed from the mold and put on shelves for 6 hours. Then the cheese is turned over and put on a tray. Its surface is lightly salted (with a dry salt) on both sides and a natural bacteria (penicillium candidum or camemberti) is added. Next it is placed to dry on shelves in a special cellar where it will age to almost complete maturation for close to two weeks. Then it is packed in its box where it completes its maturing process for 5 or 6 days before being sent to the point of distribution or retail. It will at this stage of “affinage” (maturation process) probably be ready to be eaten. But to be good it has to be “à coeur” (fully ripened to its heart). It is still a fragile product when it reaches the cellar of the “fromager” and requires its daily attention and several manual and olfactive inspections. Another handicap is its short shelf life: no more than 8 to 10 days. If it goes beyond its normal life cycle, an authentic raw milk camembert’s rind turns brownish, it looses its flat bloomy whitish surface, with light reddish dots or thin streaks , gets dry, its center collapses, and it develops an unpleasant ammonia odor. A very few camemberts are sometimes “affinés” (aged) with either apple cider or “calvados” (the famous apple brandy). But I doubt that you will find any of those at your local supermarket.

Growth of the pasteurized camembert market.

  This fragility and short shelf life are probably the main reasons why, starting in the mid-sixties, the authentic raw milk camembert was progressively replaced by “pasteurized camembert”. The pasteurization (by heating the milk) process allowed the customer to obtain a more stable camembert, whose life cycle could reach more than 30 days from the date of packaging. And it relieved both the distributor and the retailers of many constraints: They no longer had to spend a lot of time watching after the good condition of their camemberts until they sold them. They also saved money with added shelf life, reduction of care in aging and storage, and above all reduced financial loss resulting from cheeses that turned bad and could not be sold. For the cheese producers it also meant that they could make all year long, even when the milk during certain times of the year was less rich, a camembert that would offer consistency in terms of freshness and taste. And of course, it facilitated the export to countries like the United States where the FDA prohibits the import of cheeses made from raw milk, unless they have been aged for more than 60 days. This condition of course is out of question for an “authentic camembert au lait cru de Normandie” aged no more than 3 weeks. The main concern of the FDA is the possibility of getting listeria, salmonella, or E-coli from raw milk cheeses. It happened a couple of times in the past. This is why the plants of the few remaining French producers of AOC raw milk camembert are submitted to extremely tough rules and regulations regarding milk collection, processing, storage, etc. And they have to face very frequent controls by health inspectors. But the bottom line is that pasteurized camembert has none of the qualities in texture and aromas that the raw-milk AOC offers, since the pasteurization process destroys the bacteria that are precisely at the origin of those flavorful characteristics. It is interesting to know that some producers of pasteurized camemberts try to restore the original taste of the raw milk cheese by minimizing the exposure to heat during pasteurization. On the other hand, some producers of raw milk are said to try to limit the risk of listeria in their milk by heating it a little bit. In the late 1930s there were about 1.400 dairies in Normandy producing traditional camembert. According to the French Ministry of agriculture, in 2005 only 40 plants are still producing camemberts in France (118,670 tons) and their production decreased by 3.1% compared to 2004. Some camemberts are produced in other geographical areas of France but cannot be classified as AOC. Even though I could not find precise statistics on the percentages of pasteurized vs. raw-milk, one can estimate than in 2006, less than 10% of the total French production of camemberts is made of authentic AOC raw milk camemberts from Normandy.

Only 10 dairies are still making AOC authentic raw milk camembert de Normandie.

Only one of them, Ferme de la HERONNIERE, a farm in the small town of Camembert owned by Monsieur Durand, still produces real artisanal camembert in a very traditional method, using milk from its own cows. · Coopérative ISIGNY /STE. MERE, well known for the fact that it was the first producer to invent and use, in the sixties, a robot capable of forming camembert through the traditional ladle pouring method. · GILOT SA · Laiterie du MOULIN de CAREL (acquired in 1997 by the large dairy group BESNIER, now LACTALIS) · Société Fromagère d’ ORBEC, that produces my favorite camembert, LANQUETOT, acquired by the BRIDEL Group, now also part of the LACTALIS Group. · Société Fromagère de SAINT MACLOU that makes the famous camembert LEPETIT, perhaps the favorite brand in France. · Fromagerie REAUX, that makes more than 3 millions camemberts per year. · Domaine de SAINT-LOUP · Laiterie de BERNIERES-JORT that belongs Today to the LACTALIS group via its acquisition in 1997 by BESNIER · Fromagerie du VAL de SIENNE There are still a few independent dairies producing pasteurized camemberts, and perhaps a few small one still producing raw-milk camemberts, but a large number of producing dairies belong to three major dairy groups: · LACTALIS (ex-BESNIER) with brand names available in the U.S like Le CHATELAIN and PRESIDENT, might have 50% of the market shares of camemberts. · BONGRAIN with brand names found in the U.S like COEUR de LION and ILE DE FRANCE · SODIAAL with brand names found in the U.S. like LE RUSTIQUE  

So, what does a good AOC camembert de Normandie, (if you manage to find one in the U.S), look like, or at least what should a good pasteurized camembert de Normandie look like?

Camembert is a fromage à pâte molle (soft-ripened cheese) made of 100% raw or pasteurized cow milk, preferably from Normandy. It is never cooked, nor pressed. Its fat content is normally at least 45% It is packed in a glazed protective paper in its traditional light wooden box. The label on the box should clearly state the brand name, the geographical place of production, which should be in an area in Normandy with a zip code starting preferably with 14 (Calvados) or 61 (Orne), where the best zones of production (Pays d’Auge) are located. The weight of the camembert should be 250 grams (8.8 oz) and it should also appear on the label. On the side of the box a date should be printed, indicating the DLUO (date limite d’utilisation optimale) that tells you that this cheese should be consumed before that date to be at its best. Do not forget that the French put the number for the month after the number for the day. If there is no date but some other numbers, they may indicate for some brands the location of the plant in France, the day of the year when the cheese was packed, and the source of the milk When you open the box, and smell the cheese, you should not get any strong odor, especially not ammonia related. The round cheese should fit neatly in the box and fill it completely. It surface should be flat all over and not irregular with holes in it. If you press the center gently it should not sag but offer a supple resistance. When you remove the paper the surface should be whitish, covered with what we call “fleur” (a sort of light powdery fluffy bloom); it could possibly be slightly granulated, and it probably will show some very pale reddish dots or discontinued very thin steaks. When you cut a portion, forming a triangular shape whose tip reaches the center of the cheese, the ‘‘pate” (the interior part of the cheese) should be uniform and creamy in texture from the rind to the center and have a pale yellow color all the way to the center of the portion. This way you know it is ready and ‘’à coeur”. In no way should the interior be runny and collapse on the plate when you cut the first slice or portion The taste should be flavorful, buttery, mild and slightly nutty or perhaps a bit fruity. Some people think that some camemberts whose milk came from a meadow where apple trees grow might have a faint aftertaste of apple. You can eat the rind if you want to. Personally, I do not eat the side rind. If you do not finish the camembert the first day, wrap it well in its original paper, put it back in the box and keep it in a cool place, but not in the fridge. Eat the remaining piece as soon as possible, during the next two days. To me, the best texture and taste of a pasteurized camembert is obtained when you buy it 10 to 15 days before the expiration date.  

What breads and wines are the best companions to a camembert? 

I prefer to eat my camembert with a freshly baked and crusty ‘’baguette’’ rather than with specialty breads like nut-bread, whole wheat, or sour-dough. And I think that the most appropriate wine to drink with a pasteurized camembert is either a good quality Beaujolais-Villages or even better a “cru du beaujolais” like a Brouilly or a Chenas. A Mercurey would also be a good choice. If you were lucky enough to eat an AOC au lait cru, I would recommend a Saint-Emilion or even a Bandol or a young Gigondas. You can eat a couple of slices of Granny Smith or Golden apples with your camembert if you wish. They are almost cousins. If you wish to bake or use camembert in special dishes go to, and you will find in the English-speaking version of this site (sponsored by the Union of producers of camembert from Normandy) half a dozen of tasty French recipes for camembert-based tortes, pies, salads, spreads, and crusty snacks.

My search for a good camembert in Chicago

When we arrived in Chicago from Paris in January of 1970, one of my first exploration of the city food landscape made me very depressed: There were no cheese mongers of any persuasion, even downtown, and I found out rapidly that the only camembert available was a canned Danish bland white thing utrageously called camembert. But it did not bear any resemblance with the original. After a year of despair, at my local grocery store in Evanston I found a strange transparent round plastic box that contained 8 portions, nicely individually wrapped, of a cheese called Camembert by DELICO. It was produced by KOLB, a small cheese factory in Lena, in the northwest part of Illinois, and was quite edible. Today KOLB belongs to the BONGRAIN group and produces some ILE de FRANCE products there. We ate that camembert for two years until we found a brie from France sold at Stop & Shop on Washington St. in the Loop precisely under the brand name of ILE De FRANCE. But it probably had stayed for too long in a cold storage warehouse in New York or New Jersey and the grayish color of its rind as well as its strong pungent taste did not satisfy us and we gave up after a few trials. My only comforting moments were when someone would bring back, in a lucky semi-clandestine way of course, some good cheeses bought at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Or when I was attending some wine degustation where French cheeses would be served by local distributors or serious caterers. One of my greatest but small moments of pleasure was at the end of my dinner on the evening Air France flight to Paris, when I opened the portion of camembert BRIDEL that came on my tray. It was pasteurized and over-refrigerated, but after months of deprivation, it was a real treat. Years later, when BRIDEL was bought up by BESNIER (now LACTALIS) this camembert became a PRESIDENT product and lost a lot of its appeal to me. We had to wait until the eighties, to be in a position to locate decent French cheeses in Chicago. But a good camembert was still very hard to find in the early nineties. Only after the new millennium did the tremendous “cheese and wine” fad which enveloped the whole city of Chicago bring us a much wider variety of good, and well cared for, French cheeses. The vital role of serious and knowledgeable local importers like Sofia Solomon, who brought all kinds of cheese to Chicago stores and restaurants, helped a lot. Anyway... About a month ago, I had a sudden craving for camembert, so I decided to do a survey of about 20 grocery, specialty food stores, cheese shops, and wine stores with food and cheese departments, in Chicago to find out what brands and kinds of camembert they were selling. First I tried the two main chains of local supermarkets, JEWEL and DOMINICK’S which over the last 2 years have started to carry a wider selection of imported cheeses, even though they are rarely correctly stored and most of the time are over-refrigerated. The only camembert was the PRESIDENT, from Lactalis, probably the bestseller worldwide. I tried it twice in different stores and was very disappointed. Both were very white, under ripened, rather bland in taste, and their texture was much too firm. No creamy paradise in sight… The price was $ 5.99 but the expiration date in one case was “border line” I was expecting to find a better choice at TREASURE ISLANDS, on Wells St., an old reliable small local chain of grocery + butcher stores that usually carry lots of European food products. But once again, there were only two camemberts available: The omnipresent PRESIDENT that sold for $ 4.00 and whose date of expiration was quite acceptable and a non-descript brand called FLEURS DE FRANCE. I opened one box. It did not reveal any odor and its texture felt to firm.
Next I decided to go one step further and to test more sophisticated stores. I started with WHOLE FOODS, a high-end type of grocery chain with an emphasis on organic products. Their store on N. Ashland at School St. used to carry three brands of camembert 3 or 4 years ago: ISIGNY, Le RUSTIQUE, and another one whose brand name I forgot. Today they carry only 2 brands: LE CHATELAIN (a good Lactalis product imported from France) at $ 9.99 each, and DELICE de FRANCE a large wheel of camembert made in France and sold by the piece. The Evanston store sells PERE CAMEMBERT, a product of LACTALIS made in its plant of Belmont, WI. It did not generate any odor when I opened the box and its texture felt too smooth. I did not dare to try it.

Their main competitor, WILD OATS, at least in its Evanston store which is the only one I checked, had a few boxes of LE CHATELAIN, selling at a low price of $ 6.99. But the expiration date was borderline.
Note: Wild Oats was acquired by Whole Foods in 2007.
Then I went to TRADER’S JOE on N. Lincoln Avenue, an interesting store belonging to the very successful Californian chain, which has lots of interesting and cheap imported foodstuffs from all over the world. I do most of my grocery shopping there. They usually sell 4 different types of Brie there. One “private label” made in France which is perfectly edible, one mediocre from ILE de FRANCE, one Canadian, and one American. But until now, only one American camembert, ROUGE ET NOIR. I tried it a couple of times, it’s OK but not really close to a French camembert. But recently, for the holidays, they started to have a French pasteurized camembert LE RUSTIQUE for only $ 4.99, a bargain . I knew that brand, manufactured by the Fromageries Riches Monts that belongs to the SODIAAL Group. And I when I ate it in France, I liked it. But the one I bought at Trader’s Joe was way past it prime. The distributor on the East Coast had probably kept it for too long in its warehouse and it was not enjoyable anymore. I will wait for the next batch to be delivered to try it again. As always I returned to my favorite, FOX and OBEL, a beautiful grocery-butcher-deli-bakery-bistrot store on East Illinois St. which has one of the best selections of unusual cheeses from Europe in the whole city. But to my surprise, they carry only LE CHATELAIN, this time at $ 7.99 each. The date was right (I bought it 12 days before expiration). And it was at the right temperature. This camembert, that according to their web site is “gently pasteurized” meaning low heat, to preserve the traditional aroma, was ‘’à coeur” and was probably the most decent piece of camembert I ever ate in the U.S.
EATZIS, their relatively new and very attractive competitor that seems to be doing good business with young well-to-do clients from the Lakeview and Lincoln Park neighboroods. was the only place in town to carry, to my surprise, one of my favorites: COOPERATIVE d' ISIGNY. But since its date of expiration was "borderline", I did not buy the last one available on the shelf. But I will return and buy one when they receive a new shipment.

Note: EATZIS was closed in 2007

Next I decided to visit so called “gourmet food shops ‘‘. I started with one of the new ones, PROVENANCE, on N. California. A very nice boutique indeed where the owner, Tracy, knows what she is talking about and has an unusual selection of international foods. They had a camembert from “LIFE IN PROVENCE" a line of imported foods from France managed by 2 French expatriates. It was very disappointing, bland, not creamy, and with a non-descript structure. But it was quite cheap, around 4 dollars each. When I called Tracy a few weeks later, she had dropped this line to replace it by an American “camembert” from Colorado, MOUCO, that she said was very good. She also sells PERE CAMEMBERT. FOODSTUFFS on Central St, in Evanston, told me that in the past they sold DELICE de FRANCE, but they had replaced it with an American camembert from Michigan. I did not try it. GODDESS AND GROCER on N. Damen Avenue did not sell any camembert I tried two other gourmet food stores owned by well-known Chicago restaurateurs and caterers: TROTTER’S TO GO on W. Fullerton Avenue did not sell any camembert at all. COBEY sold only LE CHATELAIN for 10 dollars each.
The next step was the specialty cheese stores. PASTORAL on N. Broadway has an impressive selection of artisan cheeses (more than 100), from all over the world including the U.S. But they do not sell any French camembert. Instead they sell an American one from Michigan, RENY PICOT. I am tempted to try it one of these days and will get back to you to let you know about my impressions. THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE, a nice little shop on N. Western Avenue near Wilson, sells a limited but very astute selection of cheeses from both Europe and the U.S. They sell only LE CHATELAIN which, according to the competent owner, is the closest to the real thing you will find in the U.S at this time. I agree with him entirely.
Last but not least, I went to check the cheese and deli department of the two largest wine merchants in Chicago: BINNY’s on N. Clark St has a nice and well-presented selection of European cheeses, including beautiful goat cheeses. But its sells only one camembert: LE CHATELAIN again for $ 8.99. The cheese and deli Manager told me that until the FDA changed its opposition to the importation of raw milk cheeses, LE CHATELAIN would be the only decent one to buy there. SAM’S WINE and SPIRITS on N. Marcey St. also had a very nice selection of French cheeses and they are attractively presented and fresh. But they had only LE CHATELAIN and ROUGE et NOIR , an O.K product made for many years in Petaluma, CA. They also sold a camembert made in France and distributed by a French fancy food distributor from the Lyon area called CHANTAL PLASSE. But its $ 12.99 price tag discouraged me from trying it.
So we are facing a very strange paradox: In Chicago nowadays, you can find an enormous and very sophisticated array of good quality and even unusual French cheeses from every province, but you have a hard time finding more than two or three brands of decent pasteurized camemberts. One cheesemonger told me that he thinks that people in the Midwest do not know a good camembert from a mediocre one, and anyway prefer Brie because it is always creamy, rich, light in color and does not have a strong odor. "It does not stink", as he said. So my own conclusion is: Be patient. One of these days you will see AOC camembert de Normandie "au lait cru" again in this country. But for the time been, be satisfied with good quality pasteurized ones like LE CHATELAIN, Le RUSTIQUE, or ISIGNY.
Bon appétit.
Update: On Dec 14, 2006 I bought an ISIGNY STE. MERE from EATZIS for $7.99. It was the best pasteurized but authentic Camembert de Normandie I had in a long time: Perfectly "à coeur'', balanced aroma, near to optimal texture. I will go for more.

 In 2012 WHOLE FOODS asked Hervé Mons a famous ''affineur de fromages'' (professional cheese ager) whose job is to age to perfection various types of French cheeses for demanding restaurants and retailers, to create an authentic camembert that would stay good on their shelves from New York to San Francisco. Hervé Mons supplies great cheeses to restaurants as well-known as Bocuse or Trois Gros.
Of course this camembert made for the U.S market it could not be really authentic since the U.S. FDA does not authorize the importation and distribution in this country of ''camembert au lait cru''. Hervé Mons searched for months for reliable dairies and cheese makers in Normandy who would  accept to create such a camembert. And they made it. Hervé Mons camembert,sold exclusively in Whole Foods stores in the  United States. I think thats it is probably ''thermisé'' meaning that the milk is heated as a temperature which kills bacteria, but not to the point of pasteurization, which kills the typical flavor of a good camambert.
Anyway, there are less than 10 producers of authentic Camembert de Normandie au lait cru left in France.
Hervé Mons camembert is really flavorful  and the closest I ever had to an old style French camembert de Normandie,
It is the only one like and buy in this country. And at $ 9.99 a wheel, it is a bargain.


  1. Anonymous5:30 PM

    What a great summary of Camembert in the USA. It matches my experience exactly. Just today (Dec 15, 2006), I bought 3 wheels of the ISIGNY Ste Mere from a Whole Foods market here in Houston. Expiry date 12/26/06. $8/Wheel. Taste is very very good, and I will be enjoying it past the expiry date I am sure. I think the biggest problem with finding a Camembert here is getting the dating right. It's quite different in France, where the date of Production is on the wheel, and not the date of expiration. For a real Frenchman, there is no real expiry date, only a difference in taste (at least to 6 weeks).


  2. Anonymous9:31 PM

    I had never had Camembert before until yesterday,I just picked up a Le Rustique Camembert at trader joes and I left it out because I prefer my cheese out of the refrigerator, I cut into it and it was delicious with grapes crackers and prosciutto, It was delicious by its self and ate more of it today, I like it a lot. Bu I don't know if it's great or not since I have nothing t compare it to, but I really enjoyed it.

  3. Anonymous9:14 AM

    I live in Chicago and I was talking to a friend about Brie and Delice cheeses and he mentioned Camembert . I told him I had never tried it and now I know why .

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