Camembert cheese: an alternative to the Yuppie favorite

Camembert cheese has long been one of the most famous of the soft French cheeses and a favorite all over the world. In the town of Vimoutiers, France -- located in the center of the Camembert region -- stands a statue erected in 1928 in grateful memory of the woman credited with originating Camembert cheese.

A local farmer's wife in the town of Camembert in the Orne section of Normandy, Marie Harel had been given the recipe, so the story goes, by a friar to whom she had given shelter. She perfected the cheese, which is made from whole, unskimmed milk, in 1790.

Good-quality Camembert is a soft uncooked cow's-milk cheese with a downy white mold on the rind. It is made by a process similar to that used in making Brie cheese, another justly famous soft French cheese made with whole cow's milk, but the microorganisms are different and, some say, give a slight characteristic bitterness to the cheese.

Others believe it more likely the fresh milk of Norman cattle -- grazing on grass grown with plenty of salt air and long days of rain -- that gives Camembert its distinctive flavor.

The cheese is firm, smooth, pale yellow in color, and without holes. It is disk-shaped and thicker and smaller than Brie. Both cheeses are very delicate, tricky to handle, and more perishable than other varieties.

Although the best Camembert is still made in the Normandy region where it originated, it is the most widely imitated and marketed of the French cheeses and production has spread to other parts of France and all over the world, including the United States.

In France it is made chiefly in the regions of Vimoutiers and Liverot. But wherever it is made, by law the place of origin must be indicated.

Authentic Camembert bears the seal of the Union des Producteurs Normands, which monitors its quality. It is still produced on a farmhouse scale as well as in large factories under precise supervision.

Connoisseurs like to eat Camembert when it is a point , or soft and runny, which it should be when perfectly ripe.

When serving cheese, remember that all cheese benefits by being served at normal room temperature, but it should not be allowed to ``breathe.'' In other words, cut surfaces should be exposed to air as little as possible.

Store all cheese in tight plastic wrap in the refrigerator. Take it out before a meal to bring it to room temperature, but unwrap it only seconds before serving.

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