Say “Cheese!”

Today it was time to visit other famous bits of Normandy, namely its cheese trail.

Our big stop was in the tiny town of Camembert, where one of the world’s most popular cheeses was created. It was the late 18th century, and a farmer’s wife named Marie Harel created camembert in her kitchen, and it became quite popular when railroads were built that allowed it to be sent to the markets of Paris. And it didn’t hurt that, when Napoleon III tasted it, he asked for it to be served every day in the palace at the Tuileries. It was included in the food kits of French soldiers in WWI, and many of them never forgot what a treat it was. Brilliant marketing.

We have eaten this cheese for years. But we never properly tasted it till we got to France. There is a good reason for that. We can only get pasteurized cheese in America, the President brand being prevalent worldwide.

But for us, the real flavor of camembert comes with the semi-pasteurized or raw milk versions. And that is what we get here, in the shops, or in restaurants with dishes like today’s salad with beignets of camembert, and œuf en cocotte with camembert sauce…fantastique.

We lunched in the nearby town of Vimoutiers, which is also part of the cheese trail. Next to our restaurant was a statue of Marie Harel, with a curious legend. What on earth were people in Ohio doing sending this to France? We dug a bit and found the story. The town of Vimoutiers was evidently heavily bombed during the invasion – but bombed in error by the Allies. The original statue of Marie lost her head during the bombing. Somehow the president of Borden’s Cheese in America decided to offer the town the cost of a new statue as some form of reparation. So the cheesemakers of Van Wert, Ohio were really the employees of the Borden plant there. (Even though we are from Ohio, we also had to look up Van Wert. Never heard of it.) And the whole thing was a bit of a promotion stunt. How American!

Vimoutiers is a major metropolis compared to Camembert. Love the cow in front of City Hall.

We began our day in Caen, where it was a quiet Sunday, except for the market. We admired everything, and strolled around, finding bits here and there that remain from before the war. For those who wonder what remains of the damage from the war, there is still some to see in Caen, such as the cathedral that remains in part, but that never again served as a church. Its bells are on the floor as the bell tower is no more. It must have been an amazing medieval city – William the Conqueror lived here and parts of his castle remain. He and his wife Mathilde each built an abbey here – one for men, one for women. (That was the condition the Pope exacted for them marrying, as they were fifth or sixth cousins. I think he just wanted some abbeys built…)

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