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Market Scene : Challenge and Change for France's King of Cheese : * Camembert is the reigning monarch in the Normandy countryside, but new government health codes now threaten the small producer.


CAMEMBERT, France — Here in the rolling hills of Normandy on the little farm where his wife was born, Michel Delorme makes his cheese the old-fashioned way, ladling the curdled raw milk by hand into cylindrical metal molds arranged in rows on a blanket of straw.

"The secret is in the ladle," said Delorme on a recent rainy afternoon, raising the long-handled iron ladle and skillfully slopping a blob of lumpy milk into a half-filled cylinder. He is a short, bespectacled Norman farmer with a wild sprout of red hair. But he could have been a golf pro demonstrating the proper use of a sand wedge. He even bent his knees slightly as he dipped into the curdled milk vat.

Quite a contrast with the way Camembert is made 30 miles west at the Vallee cheese factory in Clecy. In Clecy, cheesemaking is an industry, not an art. At a rate of 200 units a minute, 140,000 units a day, 30-million units a year, machines curdle, shape (with plastic mats to put fake straw markings on the cheese), package and age the rounds of cheese on computer-driven conveyor belts.

As they progress along the conveyor belt, the hockey-puck-sized rounds are weighed on a sensitive scale. If they fail to meet the strict 250-gram weight test, they are dropped without mercy through a trap door into a bin of broken cheeses destined for animal feedlots. The only part of the process that is not mechanized is when a pair of husky men flip the trays of cheese cylinders so that the other side of the forming cheese can be exposed to the air and hardened.

Henri Vallee, manager of the Clecy cheese factory and descendant of the woman credited with introducing Camembert cheese in Normandy in 1791, said the human cheese flippers will be replaced by robots beginning next year.

Camembert, the crusty "king of cheese" that smells a little like a football locker room after summer practice, is 200 years old this month. The Normandy cheese producers marked the anniversary with a variety of events, ranging from a Camembert art exhibit in a Paris museum to a televised gala that featured, besides 200 chefs, young women dressed in strapless gowns made of Camembert labels.

But for Camembert, named for the village where it was first produced by Marie Harel, it is also a time of challenge and change. Only a handful of small cheesemakers produce Camembert in the traditional manner, using raw milk ladled by hand.

New European health codes, similar to those that exist in the United States (where raw-milk Camembert is banned) threaten to drive the smallest producers from business. Although cheese producers don't advertise the fact, at least 70% of the 600 million Camemberts produced in France each year are made with pasteurized milk.

Purists contend that the only veritable Camembert is the one produced with raw milk from cows grazing on Norman soil.

"For good Camembert," said Michel Delorme, taking a break after posing for two busloads of foreign tourists who came to see one of the last individual Camembert cheesemakers at work, "the important thing is the raw milk. That's the only way it picks up the special taste of the soil, the earth. You can't have taste in cheese with pasteurized milk. Fifty kilometers from here the Camembert does not taste the same."

The Camembert legend has it that the recipe for the strange cheese with its rubbery rind of mold encasing a moist, creamy center has been passed down intact for two centuries after Harel first learned it from a grateful monk she sheltered during the anti-clerical scourge of the French Revolution.

In fact, said French sociologist Claude Fischler, an expert on French food habits, Camembert has been constantly evolving to meet new consumer demands that came with refrigeration and supermarket shopping.

"There is no such thing as traditional Camembert," said Fischler, who relishes shattering myths about French food. "It is easier to find a reasonably good Camembert today than it was 15 years ago. I remember when I was a kid my corner cremerie had all kinds of Camembert but half of it smelled like ammonia. People's tastes have changed. In those days it was believed that a good Camembert should be runny at the center. Now they say it should be firm.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, when refrigeration had come to every home," Fischler explained, "cheese producers found that consumers actually had changing tastes. The housewife wanted cheese that was soft but that didn't run or smell in the fridge. So the cheese companies developed products--the kind of Camembert we eat today--that meet these standards."

Under these kinds of pressures, the production of raw-milk Camembert appeared doomed.

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