Sunday, June 14, 2009

The tiny rural Norman village called Camembert

Weeks before I travel, I have already outlined my major itineraries such as places I should not miss, routes I need to take, local culinaire I must get my hands and tastebuds on, markets to explore, events, etcetera... but I also like to have a bit of flexibility just in case what I have planned didn’t work out well.

From Le Mont Saint Michel, the next major stop on my road tip is Rouen, but before reaching Rouen, I will be passing by the villages of Camembert and Bernay. I thought its best to avoid the French highways this time and take a nice tour of the renowned French countryside.

The national cheese of France was born in this idyllic little village called Camembert, about 2500 acres on top of the hills in the countryside of Lower Normandy known as Pays d'Auge. There are about 200+ villagers living here. 

Speaking of Camembert, many people cannot identify the difference between Camembert and Brie, even chefs, but Camembert is known for its stronger scent and flavour. Camembert also seems to be more popular among the fromage connoisseurs in France than Brie. It is also more expensive.

I personally prefer Camembert over Brie because I love strong cheeses. I find Brie too bland.

The drive through the countryside was worth it. France is undeniably a beautiful country. Unlike the Netherlands that is amazingly flat, France is like a voluptuous woman, she has curves, and valleys, and hills, and plains as well.

It was a very revitalizing experience to drive through the rural countryside, enjoy and breathe in the work of nature. See charming houses laid against lush wooded areas. Hear the goats shout baaa and the cows go mooo as they graze under apple trees. It surely is a different sight than the highway.

I’ve read about Camembert being a tiny village perched high on a hill in the middle of a farming valley near the Viette river. The reviews about it did not really show any sense of elation so I quite downplayed my expectations. True enough a low profile scene of the village greeted me when I arrived. The village sign Camembert is planted on a brick box of yellow orange flowers. Ahead, I could see the church tower dominating the village skyline. I drove further and reached the main intersection which is the village square. There is a small hotel, a village church with a graveyard, the Camembert museum and tourism office and a few houses, maybe 2 or 3 houses. That was about it!?

A couple of tourists were around, they were mostly locals and British. I had a quick conversation with a French local tourist who spoke perfect English (quite a rare phenomenon as he was in his late 50’s). He was asked me about the opening times of the Camembert museum. I told him I just arrived. Too bad, we were both late as it closed half an hour ago.

Here is a transcript that I chanced upon the controversial history of Camembert Cheese, France’s national cheese:

“Marie Harel was born on a farm in the Brie region where Brie cheese had long been made. Following her marriage, she moved to Camembert, a village already famous for its Livarot cheese. Marie Harel can take credit for making a Brie-type cheese in a Livarot mold. This is the cheese that has come to be known as Camembert.”

Other renditions of the myth said it was a priest from Brie who fled to Camembert and taught Marie Harel the secrets of making cheese. To read more about Camembert’s myth and history go here – Camembert: a national myth

So helaas, I didn’t get to visit the Camembert museum and the President cheese brand exhibition so I decided to stroll a bit around and wandered in the church’s graveyard, which I must say was quite a delight. It was very neat and well taken cared of. There were flowers decorating the graves that were made of polished marble and granite. I also went to the backyard of the small hotel to view the lush green valleys and the rolling fields.

The landscape is so pure and breath taking here! *sigh* I wouldn’t mind staying here for a week and waking up to such fresh and relaxing panorama every morning.

There is indeed irony, charm and even humour in coming to terms that the French cheese that achieved national and international fame came from a tiny rural Norman village in the middle of nowhere. Such is life I guess and so is history as well.

The only hotel in the village.

Maison du Camembert (Camembert Museum) and Office of Tourism. The museum is shaped and painted just like the Camembert cheese.

Camembert's church is constructed in stone and next to it is the village graveyard.

Check out the lush green pastures...

Such serene and beautiful scenery in Camembert.

Travel Period: May 2009
Destination: Camembert (Lower Normandy), France

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