We recently spent a week-end at my friend Annick’s house in a region called le Perche, part of Basse Normandie. We were at the heart of it, between Bellême and Mortagne, département de l’Orne. I had spent many vacations there as an ado (teenager). This pretty region, hilly and woody (website) has become a week-end destination for chic Parisians, who own homes there ranging from old village houses to 16th century manoirs and chateaux, less than two hours from Paris and yet “away from it all”.
Being as always focused on food, I went to markets every day. Saturdays it is Mortagne au Perche, aka capital of boudin noir (made of pork blood and fat). Boudin noir is made everywhere in France, since there are pigs everywhere and there are as many variations as there are charcuteries. Mortagne organizes an annual competition, this year counting no less than 525 participants some coming from Ireland, Germany, Québec and for the first time Japan. Annick took me to her favorite charcuterie, away from the main street, proud winner of a local competition. We bought boudin aux oignons, and boudin aux pommes which in Normandy is a must.
Back to the Place du Marché, spreading around the church Notre Dame, what a kick to see several confréries in costumes gathering for a day of celebrations: a parade, a lunch, a guided visit of Mortagne, an “initiation” ceremony for new members, and a dinner banquet, organized by “La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte-Boudin” (the knights of boudin tasting, which sounds ridiculous in English).
The gastronomic Confréries’ role is the preservation of local traditions, in food and wine. They are passionate about the product they glorify, and play an active role in maintaining artisanal know-how. The medieval inspired costumes and ornaments they wear for public appearances are in keeping with their mission. Can they be compared to a sect, are they lobbyists? It might be your first impression but I do believe they are sincerely motivated by the desire to maintain good practices and draw attention to their champion.
I immediately became friends with Jean Marie Cambefort and his wife. Jean-Marie is the Grand Maître of the Confrérie du camembert DE Normandie, the only real one, entitled to the AOP, as opposed to the Camembert fabriqué en Normandie. Not to mention over 2000 brands of “fake” camembert which have been identified all over the world.
A short list of ten farms only, producing 5000 tons, have qualified for the Appelation d’Origine Protégée and observe the strict rules:
– the milk has to be raw, from cows raised in Normandie
– at least 50% of the cows need to be the original local breed “vaches normandes” (a goal set for 2017)
– the molds are filled fives times with a slightly smaller laddle, over five hours.
– minimum aging of two weeks in local cellars at a temperature between 10° and 15°C. For a Camembert at its peak, count 35 days.
Jean-Marie managed a major Fromagerie for twenty years. He saw the cheeses go from raw milk to flash heated. Now retired, he has been elected Grand Maître five years in a row. One of his roles is to make consumers aware of the difference between AOP “the real camembert” and the others. He certainly convinced me. And I can’t wait to accept his invitation to visit one of these ten farms.
Camembert de Normandie will be on my cheese platter each time it is available… at its peak. And served with a white wine. Tannic red wines will fight the cheese’s subtle flavors. Alternatively, cider or Calvados following the golden rule: what grows together goes together.
Of course we needed a good bread (approved by the Talmeliers), so Annick took us to the most secret local address for bread. Thierry Hermeline grows his own organic wheat, which he grinds on a stone mill and bakes twice a week for the public. We loved his “tresse aux cereales” (whole wheat multigrain).