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Camembert

A National Myth

Pierre Boisard (Author), Richard Miller (Translator)

Available worldwide
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Hardcover, 267 pages
ISBN: 9780520225503
July 2003
$42.95, £31.95
Camembert—delectably fragrant, creamy-centered, neatly boxed—is the most popular and most famous French cheese. Originally made by hand in the Norman countryside, it is now mass-produced internationally, yet Camembert remains a national symbol for France, emblematic of its cultural identity. In this witty and entertaining book, Pierre Boisard investigates the history of Camembert and its legend. He considers the transformation of France's cheese-making industry and along the way gives a highly selective, yet richly detailed history of France—from the Revolution to the European Union. Camembert: A National Myth weaves together culinary and social history in a fascinating tale about the changing nature of food with implications for every modern consumer.

As the legend goes, by coincidence, grand design, or clever marketing, the birth of Camembert corresponds almost exactly in time with the birth of the French republic. In this book, republicans and Bonapartists, revolutionaries and priests are reconciled over the contents of a little round box, originating a great myth and a great nation. The story of the cheese's growing fame features Napoleon, Louis Pasteur, the soldiers of the First World War, and many others.

Beneath this intriguing story, however, runs a grittier tale about the history of food production. We learn, for example, how Camembert became white—a topic that becomes a metaphor for the sanitation of the countryside—and how Americans discovered the secrets of its production. As he describes the transformation of the Camembert industry and the changing quality of the cheese itself, Boisard reveals what we stand to lose from industrialization, the hallmark of the past century.

Today, small producers of raw-milk, ladle-molded Camembert are fighting to keep their tradition alive. Boisard brings us to a new appreciation of the sensual appeal of a lovely cheese and whets the appetite for a taste of the authentic product.
Pierre Boisard is Professor of Social Sciences, Centre d'études de l'emploi.
“Through exposition [Miller] embeds her evidence in a rich context of people, places, and things that fleshes out her reasoning and elevates it beyond the objective abstractions of mere logic. That context is then elaborated through a rich command of descriptive language. . . . Finally, to emphasize that all of this involves “thinking in time,” she delivers the whole package with all the storytelling qualities of a good narrative.”—Examiner.com
“As this witty and informative book demonstrates, the origins of camembert remain shrouded in mystery and legend.”—Sarah Howard Times Literary Supplement (TLS)
“[Boisard] tells us all we want to know and more about this king of cheeses. . . . All will savor the rich tale [he] tells.”—Eugen Weber The Key Reporter
“Halfway through reading this book I was inspired to rush out to a farmer’s market to buy a Camembert made . . . authentically from raw milk. . . .This may be a book for cheese-eating foodies, but it also speaks to a wider readership of social historians and culinary conservationists.”—The Times
“An interesting, occasionally amusing . . . book on . . . what is often identified as France’s most popular cheese.”—Martin Caraher Times Higher Ed Supplement (Thes)
“Boisard’s associative range is breathtaking. The work of an insistent imagination, this is definitely ‘high-heel’ writing.”—Thomas Meyer Raleigh News & Observer
“Boisard is at his best . . . “—J. B. Gough Technology And Culture
“The most interesting and unusual food book of the year. . . .A fascinating account of some of the misconceptions surrounding France’s best-known cheese.”—William Skidelsky New Statesman & Society
“Historian Boisard takes a hard look at this myth and deconstructs it to show how French nationalism, Norman pride, and the beginnings of a worldwide, twentieth-century marketing industry united to take advantage of one American physician’s obsession with a hitherto unremarkable French cheese.”—Mark Knoblauch Booklist
“Explores the French obsession with this perfectly formed cheese. . . .Boisard calls camembert ‘the odorous emblem of France...the most popular cheese in a country known for its multitude of cheeses.’ He shows just how many myths the French have constructed to shore up their preference for camembert.”—Bee Wilson Sunday Telegraph Magazine
“Reading Mr. Boisard’s sensual descriptions of cheese pleasures, one feels he would approve.”—Chronicle Of Higher Education
“There are French writers who seduce us with descriptions of the culinary and romantic landscape, and there are those who reveal the mysteries behind ordinary objects and characters. Pierre Boisard accomplishes both feats in ‘Camembert: A National Myth.’ . . . Boisard transports us across time to a more innocent era in a pastoral France, while creating a sense of wonder at the ways in which human beings connect and occasionally create something extraordinary. . . . In ‘Camembert,’ Boisard serves up an appetizing book, and in so doing reveals, more than anything else, what it truly means to be French.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A gripping read.”—Steven Shapin London Review Of Books
“Entertaining reading.”—The Economist
"Readers who enjoy good food and entertaining history will be delighted by Pierre Boisard's Camembert, which tells the story of France's national cheese. Boisard shows how both Camembert and its fame were shaped by historical, economic, scientific, and technological forces, how this recently invented "traditional" food evolved into an industrial product that still manages to evoke the preindustrial past. And he offers a memorably frank and French analysis of odorous fermented milk and its transgressive pleasures. After Camembert, cheese will never taste quite the same!"—Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking and The Curious Cook

"Pierre Boisard's Camembert defines scholarly cheese writing with an in-depth look at Normandy's contribution to the world's greatest cheeses. A real contribution to the field of food history."—Rob Kaufelt, proprietor, Murray's Cheese, New York City

"By painstakingly tracing Camembert’s beginnings from 200 years ago to modern day, Pierre Boisard takes us on a fascinating journey of the development of a great cheese and the larger struggle it has represented between rural France and the economic demands of big business. Camembert: A National Myth reads like a combined historical and suspense novel as Boisard traces the parallels between Camembert’s development and that of France. A fascinating and essential read for anyone who loves Camembert or any artisan food for that matter, and who wishes to see these foods – and their rural roots – preserved."—Laura Werlin, author of The New American Cheese

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