That immaculate confection

June 4, 2004

Pierre Boisard produces an interesting, occasionally amusing, if distorted and untidy, book on Camembert that ultimately fails to explain the Camembert myth or the future of what is often identified as France's most popular cheese. The irony is that this myth was rekindled by an American, Joseph Knirim, and his pilgrimage in the late 1920s to the home of the presumed inventor of Camembert, Marie Harel. This resulted in the modern recreation of the myth, in the form of public relations and branding.

Boisard argues that in the history and development of Camembert, "every one of the important questions of the age" can be found.

In this he differs little from those who see all our social problems in the realm of food behaviour and choice: how often have we heard politicians and social commentators using the decline of the family meal and of communal eating as a metaphor for the decline of society?

The first part of this book deals with the myth and legends that surround Camembert. All we can be sure of is that Knirim's pilgrimage to Harel's home town led to the creation and development of the modern myth. Myth and legend, fact and fiction are inextricably intertwined with the psyche of a country; but here we have too much myth and not enough fact.

I am reminded of the character in the John Ford film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance who famously said "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

Boisard links the change in Camembert, from its "blue period" (the cheese was originally blue), to the original myth, which has Harel being inspired by a priest to develop a virginal white cheese, comparing this to the Immaculate Conception. The First World War popularised Camembert in the French imagination, as it was included along with wine in the ritual of communing before going off to fight (a ritual symbolic of the communion host in the Catholic mass).

The second part of the book deals with the industrialisation process and the struggle for the makers of Camembert to seek an identity and protection for their product. This is the more interesting part, but it suffers from a lack of data and analysis; there is no yardstick for comparison. Camembert is used in this book to portray French ideals of a bucolic tradition, yet paradoxically its key features are reflections of the development of science and industrialisation: Camembert's white colour is due to the identification of the Penicillium candidum and its round wooden box a feature that made transport between countryside and cities easier.

The tradition of family dynasties in the Camembert industry has resulted in 11 firms using the French government-approved certification of authenticity, the appellation d'origine contrôllée . Four of these firms account for 80 per cent of all AOC-labelled Camembert sold. This is industrialisation writ large. The certification makes no distinction between production methods, whether assembly-line mass production or production by hand.

The debate over what constitutes an authentic Camembert has been waged since the 1880s and is reminiscent of many of the current arguments over locally produced food or food with a clear regional provenance. What is clear is that the process of Americanisation (or McDonaldisation) - which consists of the standardisation of taste, flavour and the appearance of packaging - is under way.

This book in its own way raises these issues, even if it does not provide any solutions. Aficionados of Camembert will probably be disappointed because the book does not address gastronomic issues, while social theorists will not find enough social theory or critical thinking to address their needs.

Martin Caraher is reader in food and health policy, City University, London.

Camembert: A National Myth

Author - Pierre Boisard
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 254
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 520 22550 3

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