A WAY WITH CAMEMBERT

 
 
 
 An invitation to visit Isigny-Sainte-Mère in Normandy had me reaching for a map. I had long been familiar with beurre d’Isigny and crème fraîche d’Isigny on leading supermarket shelves;  but until now, if you had asked me where exactly the place was I could no more have been sure of my answer than of telling you the subjunctive pluperfect of être. By contrast, even today many a U.S army veteran would be able to pinpoint the spot unerringly. In June 1944, Isigny was a few murderous miles from the key D-Day American objectives of the Pointe-du-Hoc and Omaha Beach. That summer, dairy cows, innocent victims of the allied invasion, lay dead and bloated in the lush meadows bordering the present great white Coopérative Laitière (dairy cooperative)  d’Isigny  on the outskirts of town.
 
 
 
 Some dairy! As a child in Sussex I frequently had the task of fetching the milk from the nearby farm. There, often huddled in my outdoor clothes, I would sometimes watch Ted Gumbril milking the Jersey cows by hand. In memory I can still hear the milk jetting into the pail. Today, it would be virtually impossible to witness so potentially an insalubrious procedure on any of the 250 farms which, depending on the time of year, supply the Isigny cooperative with anything from 30,000 to 45,000 litres of milk a day. “Our producers undertake to rigorously  comply with the Agri Confiance manual”, says the press handout. ” This covers feedstuffs, animal welfare, the levels of hygiene on the premises and milk collection. In addition to all the audits carried out by an independent certifying body, our own quality control teams pay routine visits and carry out checks on all our producers. This way we can guarantee complete and audited traceability”. 
 
 
 
 So no  “Shove over there my beauty!” as Ted Gumbril butts a tan and white Jersey flank with his head (which is covered by a handkerchief, knotted at the corners) and draws his stool closer to the good natured animal that is supplying the essential accompaniment for tomorrow’s porridge. Here in Normandy only gleaming stainless steel and snaking plastic tubes. Only impeccable white wellies and long white coats and disposable caps imperative for all visitors. No sparrows chirping in the rafters. Only the hiss of air filters and hydraulics. Only the low, background gossip of machinery that never sleeps. And yet: “ On the farms in the old days they used to fill cheese moulds by degrees, ladle by ladle, giving time for the milk to settle between each.” explains my guide. “Now, we replicate the process automatically with that apparatus you see there”. Up and down go the stainless steel cups, in and out of the milk, opening and closing above the moulds passing on the conveyor belt below. In the control room a man surveys a battery of computer monitors. One of them, I suppose, is keeping track on the production of the “Traditionally churned” butter, another on the Crème Fraîche d‘Isigny  (Médaille d’Or Paris 2004). No dipping one’s finger in the cream churn when Ted Gumbrill isn’t looking.  No swinging my quart can round and round at arm’s length, vertically, in an elementary demonstration of centrifugal force as I go homeward up the hill.
 
 
 
 Centrifugal force is key in this state-of-the-art transmutation of some of the most nutritious grass in the world (the area of supply is strictly Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) into some of the most internationally famous food products of France. At scientifically calculated speeds, fat and buttermilk are spun apart, the one to be metamorphosed into umpteen varieties of cheese (Camembert, Brie, Livarot, Pont L’Évêque, Saint-Paulin, Saint-Jouvin, Mimolette…………) cream, and several of distinctive Beurre d’Isigny, the other into instant skimmed milk powder. A far cry from waiting 24 hours for the raw cream to rise to the top of the milk, then skimming it off by hand. An age away from strong arms labouring at wooden churns. And the cows: where are they? For three or four months of the year as likely as not “au chaud”: happily indoors; munching away at a varied menu of hay, root vegetables and maize and whatever else constitutes the bovine plat du jour. Twenty per cent of the A.O.C. production area is constituted by the marries — land long-since reclaimed from the sea but seasonally inundated by the rivers Douve and Taute and Vire and Aure and Merderet— which cannot be grazed until it emerges from the winter floods. When it does, the grass is especially rich in nutrients and grows so fast (the locals like to tell visitors) that anything inadvertently dropped in the morning will be irretrievably overgrown by the afternoon. Then, the native Normandy breed and the Holsteins take to the meadows again. 
 
 
 
I round off a morning’s tour of the great dairy cooperative of Isigny in the tiny kitchen of the restaurant Chez Roger at le Grand Vey, near Carentan, just across the bay. Joël, the chef patron, is showing me how to produce something I have never heard of before — a baked camembert. First blanching some slivers of fresh garlic, he then pushes them into half a dozen incisions he has made with the point of a knife in the surface of a beautifully ripe specimen of the famous cheese. That done, he scatters chopped basil, thyme and parsley on top, adds a twist or two of black pepper from the grinder, sprinkles a little red wine overall, puts the camembert, still in its box, into a small casserole without the lid on and consigns it to a very hot oven. Ten minutes later, after another glass of Moët et Chandon Brut, we eat the melted cheese as though it were a fondue, using pieces of very crisp baguette as dippers. Sensational!  Truly, a revelation!  Joël says that almost any fresh herbs will do but that the cheese must be in a box, which has been stapled together; not glued. 
 
 
 
Neither Chez Roger, nor Joël’s way with camembert, nor Isigny, will be news to a host of serious gourmands. For myself, all three were happy discoveries. Off the beaten tourist track, the restaurant owes much of its repute to word of mouth among the Anglo-Norman cognoscenti. If only every source of restaurant intelligence were as reliable!
 
 
 ‘A Way with Camembert’ was commissioned 6 years ago by a magazine that then went out of business, so to the best of my knowledge the piece was never published. (And  was I ever paid?). The superb Coopérative Laitière d’Isigny is still alive and well, though I dare say some of my numbers might need revision. But what of Chez Roger? If any of my readers can update me it will be a great kindness.www.west175productions.com/Great_Food/recipes/recipe031.
www.isigny-ste-mere.com

 

 

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2 Comments on “A WAY WITH CAMEMBERT”

  1. Tom says:

    A lovely article – you paint a picture like no other. As a city boy born and bred (not the Square Mile kind), even I got the urge to head off to the countryside after getting the rather vivid image of a young boy swinging milk around as an experiment while walking up a hill. Makes me want to uproot and see my family in Brittany again.

    One very very small point – as a half-french person myself, I feel bound by the laws of pedantry to point out that it should be ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’ (note the e on the end), as it’s une appellation, pas un. Bit ashamed that I care so much, really.

    Must try the Camembert trick. Suspect my dad would adore it.

  2. Nigel Buxton says:

    Thank you for yr very kind comment.
    I’m mortified about the missing e and have made the appropriate correction. Best wishes

    Nigel Buxton.


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