“C’est incomparable,” he says, kissing his fingertips.
Various cheeses of varying shapes and smells (but uniform premier status) are stacked up on his trestle table in the middle of the cobblestoned town square. "Camembert, c'est un poeme!" He smiles before breaking into perfect English. "Out of the 400 great French cheeses, Camembert is the king."
The gentleman presses a chunk into my hand and watches me carefully. There is an etiquette to eating the flavourful delicacies and, every Monday afternoon, the town of Vimoutiers in Normandy hosts a market where stallholders offer free masterclasses in stand-up cheese appreciation.
Normandy’s 'route du fromage': where every chunk is a masterpiece
The Normans ("north men") of France take their cheese very seriously. "I only eat my cheese when it's just about possible for me to stay in the same room with it," says Jean, another local fromage sage extraordinaire, with a laugh.
He gives the impression that with just one nibble of rind, he could tell whether the cow had been milked in the morning or the evening, and whether the field it grazed on was north or south-facing. He treats every block of cheese like an objet d’art. Every chunk as a masterpiece.
He passes me a piece of Pont-l'Eveque. This is one of the oldest of the French varieties. It is called "the colonel", as its traditional red mace bulrush rind resembles the strips of a French colonel's uniform. Its original name was Angelot, after an old gold French coin.
Normandy's "route du fromage", or cheese route, is appropriately Dairylea-shaped, taking connoisseurs on a triangular 60-kilometre tour through high-hedged pastureland, or bocages, passing the orchards and flax fields of Lower ("basse") Normandy and Le Pays d'Auge. More than 80 "laiteries" and "fromageries" offer tours and degustations.
Learning how to make proper Camembert
In the morning, I visited Vimoutiers's cheese museum, Musee du Camembert, where I learnt that Camembert cheese is made by mimicking the exact temperature of the inside of a cow's udder – 37˚C, to be precise. Camembert only became protected by its own Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) label in 1983.
This certification is granted by the French government to ensure that specific cheese, wines and agricultural products are produced in the region of their origin, in the traditional manner, using specific ingredients. Nonetheless, more than 200 pseudo-Camemberts are now made in various parts of the world – Iceland, Argentina, Japan, Tunisia, Siberia and Tasmania all make their own
Real Camembert is made from local raw milk hand-ladled into a mould, and only 10 dairies carry the prestigious AOC label. The ladle must be the same diameter as the mould and the curds must be spooned out in one solid block, without becoming pulpy or making the cheese lumpy. The museum has a display of Camembert cheese-box labels, as well as mouchoirs a beurre or butter handkerchiefs, which were traditionally draped over baskets containing cheese to distinguish their origin and identify their provenance. Each farm has its own hanky pattern.
Traditionally, price depended on flavour and smell – the smelliest were usually the most expensive. Other cheese-related paraphernalia on show include antique butter churns, 19th-century milking stools and buckets, cheese-carrying donkey saddles, Chinese rush drying mats, pestles, churning paddles and vats, earthenware basins called "poelons", specialist skimming utensils, resting chambers, mixer-agitators and miscellaneous kneading devices.
Every conceivable cheese-making apparatus is on display – aside from a cow, of course. Although there is a sculpture of one outside the town hall. It is affectionately known as The Statue of the Unknown Cow.
The difference between Brie and Camembert
My next stop is where it all began. Le Manoir de Beaumoncel in the tiny village of Camembert, five kilometres from Vimoutiers. This is the 1650 woodside and broken-tile, half-timbered, typically Norman farmhouse where Marie Harel (1761-1812) sheltered Abbot Charles-Jean Bonvoust, who was fleeing fanatical republicans during the French Revolution.
In return for her help, Bonvoust entrusted Harel with the recipe for a squidgy soft cheese. He was from the Brie region near Paris, which is why Camembert is so similar to this other famous soft cheese. Brie is made into a wheel, while Camembert is cyndrical. Different breeds of cow are involved in the making and, in the final analysis, Camembert is nuttier and a lot smellier.
Harel's daughter extended production and Camembert was eventually put on the gastronomic map when Napoleon III tasted it while staying at Argentan. He ordered it to be served at the Tuileries, his Parisian residence.
Harel is buried in the churchyard in Champosault, four kilometres from Camembert. The village, where cows outnumber humans, has its own museum, which resembles a half-open cheese box. Only 200 people live in the tiny hamlet, most around its 14th-century church.
'Come and pay your respects to the birthplace of France’s bestselling cheese'
The Durand family run Le Ferme Horonniere in Camembert and make cheese from 130 head of Normande Prim' Holstein grazing cattle. You can see family members wearing hairnets, labouring away in their ripening and boxing rooms. "Camembert is an emblem of France," Nadia Durand says, offering me a taste of her handiwork. "Tell your friends to come and salute it. We have many visitors coming to pay their respects to a French institution. To the birthplace of France's bestselling cheese."
In various brochures, Normandy's cheese route is described as a trip through "the realm of milk" and a tour around "the motherland of soft ripe texture cheeses". The odyssey also takes you to see thatched houses and about a thousand years of architecture. Lisieux has the 12th-century St Pierre cathedral and medieval / Renaissance Chateau Saint-Germain. Its markets are on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Much of the city was destroyed during the Second World War, so outlying villages such as Orbec and Ticheville better represent true Normandy. Everywhere you go, you are watched by the brown-circled eyes of the local cows, the industry's brown-coated workforce.
In the Domaine Saint Hippolyte in Saint-Martin-de-la-Lieue, four kilometres from Lisieux, I am advised that soft cheeses are best eaten within seven days of purchase and, because of their short making and ripening time of 12 weeks, the best time for the best runny cheese is between March and August. Here I try the mushroomy Neufchatel, made since the 16th century near Dieppe.
On a dairy farm in Livarot, as a farmer cuts into a huge wheel of fromage, he explains that the Calais cheese mimolette uses flowers for its colourings, much like cheddar, which uses carrot and marigolds. He adds that the region produces 3,500 tonnes of cheese each year.
He offers me another piece. My nose twitches knowingly. I recognise it immediately as Livarot. Its distinctive barnyard odour gives it away. "Splendide?" the farmer asks. Gorged, I nod. "A day without cheese is a day without sunshine," he says, kissing his fingers loudly.