WENDY’S WEEK; NORMANDY CHEESES
As I wandered around our local supermarket this week, I came across a selection of French cheeses, which took me straight back to a happy holiday spent in Normandy, and any visiting Normandy during the first week of August should visit the annual Livarot Cheese Fair, located in the heart of Normandy’s dairy region. Here visitors and locals can mingle to enjoy the region’s delicacy and even take home some traditional Normandy
Cheeses are produced almost everywhere in Normandy, but the cheese-making industry is most highly developed in the Auge country (‘le Pays d’Auge’) which extends over three French departments (Orne, Calvados and Eure) producing three distinct soft flowered rind cheeses, Camembert, Livarot and Pont-l’Evèque.
The king of the Normandy cheeses is Camembert, a soft cheese with a velvety feel to the rind hiding a creamy flesh with a fairly strong odour. Legend informs us that a farmer’s wife in the town of Camembert, Marie Harel, created the cheese. She was reportedly given the ‘secret’ of its manufacture by a priest during the French Revolution (beginning in 1789), when all Roman Catholic priests in France were required to swear allegiance to the newly formed republic. Those who refused were executed or forced into exile, whilst others chose to hide in the countryside. Thus during October 1790, the Abbé Charles-Jean Bonvoust supposedly sought refuge with Marie at her farm. He came from the Brie, a region near Paris famous for its cheeses, and in return for shelter he shared a few secrets about the preparation of cheeses with Marie.
Although this is a feasible legend, this region was famous for its cheese long before Marie Harel’s birth on April 28 1761. In 1569, Brugerin de Champier in his De Re Ciberia referred to ‘Augeron cheeses’, as did Charles Estienne, another writer, in 1554, and Thomas Corneille, brother of Pierre Corneille (author of Le Cid), spoke in 1708 of ‘the cheeses of Camembert’ in his treatise on geography.
However it was the advancement of railroads during the 19th century that made Camembert cheeses known throughout the markets of France. In 1890 the French engineer Ridel created a famous wooden box to make this cheese more readily transportable, and suddenly it was in demand all over France and well as being exported throughout the world. When milk became the first agricultural production in the Pays d’Auge area farmers organized cooperative societies to collect milk from different farms and industrialize the production, and this, along with the introduction of pasteurized milk, changed the cheese, giving it a much milder taste and a longer shelf life. To receive the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) label, a Camembert must be made according to stringent rules. The milk should come from the Normandy countryside, which is poured into large containers called ‘bassines Normandes’ (Norman bowls), to make it curdle. Rennet is added to the milk, and the mixture must sit for one and a half hours before the beginning of the next stage. The moulding is done with a ladle, in at least four different passes, which may take more than 4 hours, depending on how many cheeses are being made at one time. To drain off the whey, the Camembert is put on shelves for four to five hours before being turned over. The next morning, the Camembert is taken out of its shaped mould and set on a tray in a salting room. It is then covered on both sides with a thin layer of salt and a precious bacteria called ‘penicillium camemberti’, and placed on shelves for approximately 12 days. Finally it is packed in its famous wood box, and shipped to the stores.
Pont-l’Evêque cheese can be traced back even further to the 12th century when it was made by monks living in the Pont-l’Evêque area. It was mentioned by Guillaume de Loris in the book called ‘Roman de la Rose’ under the name of Angelot. It was also quoted during the 15th and 16th centuries by various chroniclers in reference to its original area, the ‘Pays d’Auge’, and was eventually called Pont-l’Evêque during the seventeenth century. Like Camembert, it is a soft cheese, but with a much stronger, earthy taste, and a pronounced tang. Its rind is a reddish orange colour and is washed several times with salt water during the aging process. It is made in a square moulds with each cheese requiring over three litres of milk and forty to forty-five days in humid cellars to obtain the mature Pont-l’Evêque. Its strong smell could indicate a powerful cheese but this is not the case since it is a fruity, subtle and refined cheese, but above all else it is very mild. The typical features of the cheese are its four sizes: ‘Grand Pont-l’Evêque’ (large), ‘Pont-l’Evêque’ (medium), ‘petit Pont-l’Evêque’ (small) and ‘demi Pont-l’Evêque’ (half), and has benefited by the ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’ label since 1972. Like all other types of cheese with the label ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’, the workshops regularly undergo sanitary analyses, and the cheeses are tested by experts and rated according to shape, look, type and taste. The consumer is always assured of the genuineness and quality of the product.
Our final cheese, Livarot is one of the oldest of the Normandy cheeses, first mentioned by name in 1690, and was the most
common cheese in Normandy in the 19th century, becoming Normandy’s most consumed cheese. Its nutritious qualities led the chroniclers of that time to call it ‘the worker’s meat’. Livarot is a soft cheese, made with split curd, and has a washed rind. It was originally made at the farm and sold on when it was still fresh so that the maturing process could be achieved by professionals. Five litres of milk and sixty days are necessary to obtain a mature Livarot, and its typical feature is that it can be easily recognised by its five reed or paper lashes that ring it. It is usually sold in five sizes: ‘Grand Livarot’ (large), ‘Livarot’ (medium), ‘Trois-quart Livarot’ (three quarters), ‘Petit Livarot’ (small) and ‘Quart Livarot’ (quarter). The authentic Livarot can be made only in the southern part of the Pays d’Auge, around the town for which it is named, and has benefited by the ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’ label since 1975.
The annual Livorat Cheese festival is something that should not be missed and attracts around 7 to 8,000 visitors on both days. Here the visitor can see around 80 exhibitors of gastronomic produce, taste cheeses, not only the AOC products, but many others, as well as see many traditional crafts from the French regions as well as from other countries. The main events and shows will take place in the streets and on the podium, and there will be a ‘pig squealing’ competition which is also open to children with the winner taking part in the International pig squeals competition. The highlight of the Sunday afternoon is a competition to find the person who can eat the most of a 750g Livarot cheese, with prizes for the winning three and something for everyone taking part.
Livarot is also host to a Cheese Museum. Set in a grand house overlooking the Vie River the Musee du Fromage illustrates the history and manufacture of Livarot cheese. Free samples are available and entrance fee is 3 Euros. More information on both these events from the tourist office: 1 Place Georges-Bisson or email firstname.lastname@example.org