If you love a good stinky cheese, you’ll appreciate that a statue was built to commemorate the patron saint of stinky cheeses, Marie Harel, and that a Google Doodle was later doodled in her honor. Harel was a cheese maker in a village in Normandy, in northern France, and near the end of the 18th century, when she was about 30, she is said to have made some of the earliest versions of what we now recognize as Camembert. That story has many versions, but all of them end the same way: Harel’s legacy is an incalculably long line of cheeses with peach-fuzz soft rinds and creamy centers, wrapped and transported in tiny wooden crates.
The best Camemberts are still made in Normandy, with raw cow’s milk, to a very specific set of standards. Fresh, wobbly curds are ladled by hand into molds to ripen with microbes in humid conditions. As they firm, the wheels are evenly salted and flipped. With a little time and a lot of attention, the cheeses peak. For just a few days, each one is magnificent: Sticky and optimally stinky. The Camembert’s soft, bloomy rind wrinkles like an old knuckle and turns a rusty orange in places, following the pattern of the surface where it was rested. The inside is a uniformly pale yellow, tender all the way through, but with a touch of leisurely and almost elastic ooze.
Some people will compare the taste of a ripe Camembert to mushrooms, to forest walks, to cooked cabbage. And some people will wonder what those people are talking about. Artisanal raw-milk Camembert, with its in-your-face flavor, is increasingly rare, even in France, where less than 10 percent of the Camembert on the market is the traditional stuff known as Camembert de Normandie. As Harel’s cheese became popular, the work of village cheese makers was mimicked on bigger production lines and factories turned out more muted cheeses from pasteurized milk. The cheese is more of a brand now than a craft, and in 2021, Camembert labeling laws will change so that it’s even harder to tell them apart.
Some people will compare the taste of a ripe Camembert to mushrooms, to forest walks, to cooked cabbage. And some people will wonder what those people are talking about.CreditPaola & Murray for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Rebecca Bartoshesky.
But there’s a good thing about a majority of the Camembert sold in France, and so much of the Camembert made and sold around the world — the cheap, substandard, deodorized, dead-inside wheels — which are much easier to get your hands on at the supermarket. These cheeses are at the heart of a different tradition: the baked Camembert. Baking has always been a way for cooks to coax an overripe, or a just-O.K. cheese, in the direction they like, to bring up the herbs and the florals, to fill out whatever might be missing. And yet pastry-wrapped baked cheese now seems like a relic. In our collective imagination, it’s the snack at a book-club meeting where no one has read the book. It’s the most exciting appetizer at a 1970s suburban dinner party. But it’s also, regardless of how you feel about its style, one of the most reliable ways to delight a small group of omnivorous people.
The idea is simple: Wrap a whole wheel of Camembert in puff pastry, making sure it’s sealed tight, and then bake it until the pastry is browned. But that’s just the blueprint, and you can build on it. You could cut the cheese in half horizontally and fill it up with caramelized onion and bacon and a spoonful of fruit preserves before you wrap it. (On YouTube, French bloggers love to add a layer of sliced boiled potatoes to the onion-bacon mixture.) Others leave the cheese whole but douse it with honey and walnuts, then sprinkle some thyme leaves over it. You could roughly chop a mixture of dried fruit and mix it with a spoonful of Cognac and let it all steam inside the cheese, sinking into the Camembert as it roasts. Slide the pastry onto a platter and surround it with a lot of salad leaves dressed simply in oil and vinegar — bitter leaves like radicchio tend to work best, but do what you like. There may be bad Camembert, a lot of it, in fact, but there’s no such thing as a bad baked Camembert.
Recipe: Baked Camembert Salad