France’s favorite cheese is facing an ‘extinction’ crisis. Not everyone is worried


When Napoleon first encountered a Camembert cheese, legend has it, he was so delighted he kissed the waitress who plonked it in front of him. Setting aside the inappropriateness of this gesture, the French emperor clearly recognized a winner.

Produced in France’s northwestern region of Normandy in various forms since at least the 18th century, the cheese – creamy, pungent and gooey – is now regarded as France’s favorite.

Which is why recent headlines about Camembert’s imminent death due to a fungal crisis have caused panic among fans of this historic fromage. Scientists, it seems, have warned that problems with French cheese’s industrial production may have long-term consequences for its future.

Alarm was raised in January when a recent study by scientists at Paris-Saclay University identified that the main fungus used in creating Camembert and other cheeses was increasingly in short supply due to the industrial production methods used to keep up with demand.

And while that might spell trouble for a variety of dairy offerings, some have taken this to mean that poor Camembert – which is handily sold in its own wooden box – is headed for the grave.

“Blue cheeses may be under threat, but the situation is much worse for Camembert, which is already on the verge of extinction,” the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) said in its report about the findings. Elsewhere, another headline warned of a looming “cheese crisis,” adding, “say a prayer for Camembert!”

The cheese stakes couldn’t be higher. Alongside the Louvre, haute couture and the Eiffel Tower, Camembert is a national treasure beloved the world over – as existential to the French as existentialism.

“What’s the typical image of France? A bottle of red wine, a baguette and a Camembert,” says Anne-Marie Cantin, a veteran cheesemonger and president judge of the 2023 French national Camembert competition. “It’s our national cheese.”

Old mold

At the heart of the problem is Penicillium camemberti, a fungus used in cheesemaking that gives Camembert its white rind and helps develop both the cheese’s rich buttery umami flavor and its palpable aroma of unwashed socks.

P. camemberti is, say the Paris-Saclay scientists, experiencing problems reproducing, largely as a result of the pressures of industrial production. Not so much performance anxiety per se, but the consequence of an asexual fungal cultivation process that, due to an extreme lack of genetic diversity, is running on empty.

Camembert, and similar cheeses like Brie, were once aged in caves or hâloirs (drying rooms), where naturally occurring mold spores gave them blue or sometimes yellow-brown rinds.  At the turn of the last century, Penicillium camemberti was introduced, replacing the indigenous mold and creating the uniform white rinds we know today.

“It is thought to be a white mutant selected from the gray-green species Penicillium commune for its color at the start of the 20th century,” the Paris-Saclay study said.

Unfortunately, unlike its cave-dwelling fungal counterparts, researchers found that Penicillium camemberti has a very low genetic diversity and declined capacity to reproduce sexually.

“Our findings raise questions about the use of limited number of clonal strains for cheese making, which tends to lead to degeneration, limiting the possibilities for further improvement,” the study said.

That, according to the CNRS report, means “it is now very difficult for manufacturers to obtain sufficient quantities of P. camemberti spores to inoculate their Normandy cheese production.”

Fall and rise

Camemberts on display in their distinctive wooden containers. - Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Camemberts on display in their distinctive wooden containers. – Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not the first time Camembert has faced a crisis following the introduction of P. camemberti. According to the late Patrick Lance, a British cheese expert who authored a definitive guide to France’s cheese, the industrialization and conflict of the last century almost saw it wiped out.

“Two world wars and too much big business nearly brought Camembert to its grave, except in name,” he wrote in his definitive 1989 tome “The French Cheese Book.”

“And this name has been brought into contempt by failure to protect it against the masses of pasteurised factory distortions of the formula, perpetrated over almost all of France and abroad.

To the rescue, in 1982, came Appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) status, which meant only cheeses made in Normandy could carry the Camembert name. That didn’t, however, stop further tussles over whether true Camembert should be made with raw or pasteurized milk.

Camembert production has been industrialized over the past century to keep up with demand for the popular cheese. - Leitenberger S/Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Camembert production has been industrialized over the past century to keep up with demand for the popular cheese. – Leitenberger S/Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Those who have experienced the past rises and falls of Camembert seem to be taking the cheese’s latest problem in their stride.

“My family has been making Camembert since 1891, five generations… I have never heard of this situation before,” Bruno Lefèvre, director general of Les fromageries de Normandie, a regional cheesemakers’ association, told CNN.

“It is true that cheesemakers have fought battles against the cheese that didn’t have a white appearance,” Lefèvre said, adding that the first batches of Camembert his father made, more than 50 years ago, were “blue, white and red.”

But from his understanding, the color difference is a result of bacterial pigmentation.

“It’s linked to this type of bacterium called Brevibacterium linens, which has the ability to form an orange pigment. It is by no means a result of fungus activity,” Lefèvre said.

France is currently hosting its annual cheese fair in Paris, gathering major cheesemakers from across the country. Naturally, fading fungus has been a much-discussed topic. Lefèvre said that people he has spoken with were confused about where the fear for Camembert’s future was coming from.

Camembert is prized for its distinctive savory flavors. - Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images/File

Camembert is prized for its distinctive savory flavors. – Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images/File

“I have made all kinds of Camembert, from more traditional ones to the more industrial ones, I have never encountered issues with my fungus,” Lefèvre said.

“This study has been widely reported by the media. Maybe the researchers were trying to make us cheesemakers panic, but so far they have not succeeded,” he added.

While the scientists have stood by their claims, they stress that there’s no danger that Camembert is vanishing anytime soon. “We always make it clear to journalists that there is no short-term danger to Camembert production,” researcher Tatiana Giraud told CNN. “What our articles say is that there is a great homogenization of starters and that this reduces their ability to adapt, nothing more.”

American cheese connection

A memorial in tribute to Marie Harel, a farmer of the French northwestern village of Camembert. A statue  commemorating Harel also stands in the Normandy town of Vimoutiers. - Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images/File

A memorial in tribute to Marie Harel, a farmer of the French northwestern village of Camembert. A statue commemorating Harel also stands in the Normandy town of Vimoutiers. – Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images/File

Of course, keeping Camembert alive also means that the cheese’s story is also kept alive. Supposedly, it was first created by a Normandy woman called Marie Harel who picked up tips from a fugitive priest from Brie, another bastion of French cheesemaking. After finding favor with Napoleon, it went on to play an unexpected role in World War I, which was commemorated with a statue.

The monument to Harel in the Normandy town of Vimoutiers, was actually first built by an American, according to Camembert expert Anne-Marie Cantin.

“An American doctor first came to Normandy after the First World War asking to find the tomb of Marie Harel and later build a statue for her,” she said.

“To the surprise of locals, who had struggled to find someone who can speak English, he explained that he had used Camembert during the war to cure patients and wanted to come and thank the inventor.”

All the president's cheese: France's Emmanuel Macron eyes up some Camembert at a fromage fair in Paris. - Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

All the president’s cheese: France’s Emmanuel Macron eyes up some Camembert at a fromage fair in Paris. – Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

That statue was later destroyed in 1944 by American bombing during the Normandy landings and it was a group of cheese factory workers from Ohio who made a donation to build a new one after the war, according to Cantin.

The statue is still standing proudly today in the town square of Vimoutiers in Normandy, with a plaque marking that it is a gift offered by “400 men and women making cheese in Van Wert, Ohio, USA.”

Another statue of Marie Harel stands back in Van Wert County Museum in Ohio, quietly marking an extraordinary and cheesy relationship between France and the United States.

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