Jan 6, 2014

C'est un Fromage: Camembert


Professor Emeritus of French at Middlebury Edward Knox tells me about the expression "C'est un fromage" meaning "It's a cushy job." Given that he's a Professor Emeritus of French and I'm not, I have to trust him on this, but I think perhaps it's an expression no longer in use, because none of my French friends even recognize or understand it, let alone use it. I've been able to verify similar meanings in written sources (also translated as "it's cake" as in, "piece of cake") but not with any actual living French humans.

He has asked me to look at this and other French sayings that refer to cheese. Piece of cake. Er, cheese.

"C'est un Gruyère" ("it's a Gruyère") or "troué comme un Gruyère" ("lots of holes like a Gruyere") means a place that has lots of easy escape routes, literally or figuratively.

"Ça pu Camembert" means "that stinks like Camembert." It doesn't actually have to smell like Camembert to use the expression. It just has to stink. Walk into a high school locker room? Ça pu Camembert. Changing a particularly horrible diaper? Ça pu Camembert, aussi. Though why the saying isn't about stinking like an Epoisse, or even a blue cheese, is beyond me.
"Entre la poire et le fromage" literally means "between the pear and the cheese." It's used to describe a good moment when everybody's at ease, often a good time to bring up an important or weighty matter. It's an old saying, one that goes back at least to the 17th century, and we can tell that because that's when that was the accepted order of the courses after a meal: fruit came before the cheese as a palate cleanser.
"En faire tout un fromage" literally means "to make a cheese out of it" and is used where English-speakers would say "make a big deal out of nothing", "be melodramatic", or "make a mountain out of a molehill."

And last but not least, here's a little chant that children say for fun, from which comes the expression "ferme ta boîte à Camembert", meaning "Shut your Camembert box," in much the same way we would say "Shut your pie hole." It means "Shut up", but in a kind of funny way. Kids like to say this chant mostly because the last syllable of each line is used as the first syllable of the next line:

Trois p'tits chats                     Three li'l cats
Chapeau de paille                  Straw hats
Paillasson                               Straw mat
Somnambule                           Sleepwalking
Bulletin                                    Report card 
Tintamarre                               Loud parade
Marabout                                 African witch doctor
Bout d'ficelle                            Piece of string
Selle de ch'val                          Horse saddle
Ch'val de course                      Race horse
Course à pied                           Foot race
Pied-à-terre                              Pied-a-terre
Terre de Feu                            Tierra del Fuego
Feu follet                                  Will-'o-the-wisp
Lait de vache                            Cow's milk
Vache d'ferme                           Cow on the farm
Ferme ta boîte à Camembert    Shut your Camembert box

THE CHEESE: Camembert

Camembert originally comes from Normandie, but that does not mean it should be confused with Camembert de Normandie. They are, officially, two different cheeses: one a generic Camembert and the other (when "de Normandie" is added) a more elegant and rare cheese with AOC status. The goal is the same, of course, a disc covered with white mold. But in the AOC version, the rind tends to be a little more striped with red and brown. In the cheaper Camemberts, it's usually a thicker, dry white mold. Can you tell just by looking at the two which one is the AOC approved Camembert de Normandie and which one is just plain ole' industrial Camembert?

It's pretty easy to see that the one on the left is AOC (here labeled AOP -- which is a version of the AOC label used under certain circumstances but that means the same thing). And the one on the right is simply Camembert.

The affinage is about 3 weeks, and during this time the raw cow's milk takes on a texture that is firm when cool, somewhat soft and even runny when warm. The taste is salty, buttery, and medium-strong. It's not a bland cheese, but it won't bowl you over, either. Camembert is sold the world over, but true Camembert de Normandie is harder to find. Camembert is easily France's most famous cheese, and you can find the non-AOC versions (some of which are quite delicious, mind you) not only in import cheese shops but also Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and quite possibly your local non-fancy supermarket.

Just in case you were wondering what would happen if you forget about some Camembert in your fridge for a very, very, very long time, it collapses and hardens into a little cheese pie that is barely chewable. However, it still melts OK and tastes rather nice in some scrambled eggs.


Well, even though it's delicious, Camembert does, of course, stink like Camembert ("Ça pu Camembert"). Trying all these cheeses is a cushy job ("c'est un fromage...."), but somebody's got to do it. I certainly don't want to complain though and create a big drama over nothing ("en faire tout un fromage"). So, I'll just shut my Camembert box.



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