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The French have rules, and they have camembert rules – mess with them at your peril

Since I moved to France two years ago, I’ve learned not to be in a hurry on market day. Everyone wants a chat. This is never more apparent than on the cheese stalls of our village market on Tuesdays and in the nearby town of Pezenas on Saturdays. We discuss what I bought last week, the merits of the new season cheeses, and I sometimes come away with a mini jar of jam or mildly spicy piment d’espelette jelly, a “free” gift for spending a ludicrous amount because if you put something in front of me I haven’t tried before I will not be able to resist.

The French love of cheese is legendary. General de Gaulle is supposed once to have said, “How can you govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” Skip forward a few decades, and the consternation over Nicolas Sarkozy’s flashy Rolex habit was as nothing to the outrage when it was revealed he planned to nix the cheese course from state lunches. Was a president who neither ate cheese nor drank wine (he believed it slowed you down) really worthy of the highest office in France?

Debora Robertson’s camembert recipe as cooked and posted on Instagram by Nigella Lawson

(Nigella Lawson/Instagram)

So imagine the reaction when it was announced that “meddlesome” Brussels, in a quest to make all food packaging recyclable by 2030, was voting on a ruling that would get rid of the classic and much loved round wooden boxes camembert has been packaged in since the 19th century. The ruling next week would also affect Mont d’Or cheese and the crates oysters are sold in, but let’s focus on camembert for now. There’s only so much smelling salts to go round.

Guillaume Poitrinal, chair of the French Heritage Foundation, said on X/Twitter: “The wooden box – low carbon, light, biodegradable, tough, made in France – is better for the planet than plastic from Saudi oil, transformed in China with coal-fired electricity, and which will end up in the ocean.”

But while in some quarters the camembert crisis of 2023 has been presented as an opportunity to give Brussels a kicking, it’s inevitably more complicated than that. An article in Le Monde suggests this is a red herring, a battle inflamed by the biggest producers of industrial camembert to protect their corner of the market.

Camembert is never not a crowd-pleaser at a party

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

French customers bought more than 45,000 tonnes of camembert last year, with only 6,000 tonnes being artisanal camembert meriting the protected designation of origin label. At the moment, all camemberts are sold in the famous wooden boxes, making the artisanal and mass-market cheeses indistinguishable to most. If this legislation passes, only the protected-origin cheese will be allowed to retain the traditional boxes. The rest will be forced into some lesser, biodegradable plastic outfit, visually marking them out as a second-rank product.

But shall we, while we’re here, put a word in for second best? In a world where there is as much snobbery about cheese as there is about wine, some wags have commented that the boxes taste better than the mass-produced cheese. Forgive them their snobbery, it’s all they have to make them feel alive.

Of course, if you love cheese you won’t want to deprive yourself of a beautiful artisanal camembert, made in the way it has been made for centuries, offering whiffs of hay, mushrooms and the milkmaid’s apron. Who cares if it costs as much as the dinner that preceded it? But few of us could, without blinking, fill up a party cheeseboard with these precious rounds just to watch Fred from over the road hoovering them up unthinkingly between sloshing down cheap red and boring on about low-traffic neighbourhoods and parking.

And removing everyday camembert from its wooden box would deprive us all of that cold-weather favourite, indulgent and delicious far in excess of its cost or difficulty. I speak of the glory that is a whole camembert baked in its box, served with small potatoes, cornichons, and perhaps a bit of ham?

I know in my career as a food writer, few recipes are more crowd-pleasing than something that goes big on the melted cheese. If I were ever in any doubt, I recently shared a recipe in my weekly recipe newsletter for dauphinoise potatoes with a whole (mass-market) camembert baked in the middle. Essentially, I sent potatoes to do the wooden box’s job. The crowd went wild. Then, the Queen herself, Nigella Lawson, cooked it and shared a picture of it on her Instagram. Within hours, I had hundreds more followers hunting me down for the recipe. So I am very grateful for the little cheese in the wooden box and I hope it will never change.

I know I share that feeling with the majority of French people, and if I’ve learned anything at all about my new countrymen and women, ruling or no ruling, I doubt camembert (or Mont d’Or, or oysters) will be sporting new outfits anytime soon. Plus ca change.

Debora Robertson’s Lickedspoon online newsletter is published weekly; she also posts on Instagram, @lickedspoon

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