Camembert is one of the most famous of French cheeses, well known around the world for its creamy and delicate flavor. Camembert was one of the earliest foods to earn a protected origin designation, and manufacture and sale of the cheese has been carefully controlled under this designation since 1983. Camembert often appears on dessert platters, although it is also excellent smeared on bread with picnic lunches, and is occasionally roasted as well.
Camembert is a semi hard to soft cheese, growing softer and creamier as it ages. A fully aged Camembert will be creamy to the center, with no rough texture. While young Camembert can be eaten, it tastes the best when the cheese has matured all the way through and has gained a slightly runny texture. The cheese has salty notes, and also tends to be somewhat bitter, a flavor which interacts well with fruits and other sweets.
Cheeses similar to Camembert have been made in the Norman part of France for centuries, but Camembert as it is known today has probably been made since the 1800s. There is a substantial amount of folklore around the famous cheese, including the story of how it got its name. Allegedly, Camembert was manufactured by a Marie Harel, who presented one of her products to Napoleon. Napoleon, delighted with the cheese, mistook the name of the town for the name of the cheese, and Camembert was officially named. The township of Camembert casts aspersions upon this quaint story, arguing that the cheese only became popular after the railroad made rapid shipping possible in the mid 1800s.
Camembert is made from fresh raw milk that is warmed and combined with rennet, which causes it to curdle. The curds are ladled into cheese forms which are allowed to drain for a full day, periodically being rotated so that both sides of the cheese will drain. After the curds have firmed slightly, they are removed from the molds and salted before Penicillium camemberti is added. The cheese takes approximately 12 days to ripen, after which it is aged before being sold.
Camembert is usually eaten after five to six days of aging, because the cheese is somewhat fragile. If left to age too long, the cheese may be infested with opportunistic molds, which is not desired. If eaten too young, however, the cheese will have an aggressive, chalky texture. If purchasing a full round of Camembert, it should be core tested so that you can see the quality of the cheese all the way through. If buying a wedge, look for one which is creamy all the way through and slightly runny.