Jun 6, 2014

The Hero Riddle: Camembert de Normandie

I promise: it's the last time during my Year in Fromage that I write about D-Day, called Jour-J in French. But given that's it's the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, I simply cannot let it pass. I cannot go to the memorial service, but, unusually, it comes to me. I am returning from a quick trip to the US for a university reunion when the flight attendant announces, "We have a special guest with us: Mr. Riddle, the lone surviving member of the 82nd Airborne from the D-Day Invasion." At this, half of the plane erupts in cheers and applause. She then repeats the announcement in French, and the other half erupts. Mr. Riddle is treated like a rock star -- better: like a hero -- by the passengers, staff, and pilots, all of whom want to thank him, shake his hand, and take a photo with him.
Yes, this is probably the least flattering picture of myself I will ever post. It's not only that I have been up late talking and dancing for 4 nights in a row, reliving my university days, and that I've just flown in on a red-eye flight. I would probably look just as red-eyed under any circumstances, because I have just shaken Mr. Riddle's hand and told him, "As a Jewish American living in France, I want to thank you." At which point, I start boo-hooin'.
Clinton Riddle, former Private First Class, is wearing the boots he wore on that fateful day, 70 years ago. He didn't want to check them in his luggage for fear of them getting lost. Hard to imagine that the person who was a glider pilot in the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment and who flew behind enemy lines in Normandy to help clear the way on D-Day could be afraid of anything. He is, in the truest and greatest sense of the word, a hero. He tells his own memories of the day in a New York Times op-ed piece, in this video, and through the Wartime Living History Association, and it's gut-wrenching to realize that this is only one tiny part of an enormous story.
And did you hear about Jim "Pee Wee" Martin, who parachuted in to the Normandy beach today for the ceremony-- and also 70 years ago as a soldier? Actually, as a member of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, he parachuted over Utah Beach during the night leading into D-Day to help prepare for the invasion.
I would, if at all possible, be there for the real ceremonies. There's the slight difficulty of it falling during the school week, and the much larger difficulty of it being so heavily attended, guarded, and regulated that there's no way to approach it. Our friends who live close to the beaches on the Normandy coast and are about as pro-America as a French family can be shrug and say sadly, "Even we'll have to watch it on TV." I've got the TV on, and there is virtually non-stop, all-day coverage of the D-Day Memorial (the first ad appeared after three hours of solid broadcasting). President Obama, himself a grandson of a World War II veteran, arrives at the site and receives French President Hollande on American territory -- the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, that is.
The two presidents together acknowledge not only the heroism of the troops but -- for the first time in an official ceremony -- also civilian casualties, sacrifices, and deaths. But it is the soldiers, some sitting right behind the President, that especially hold our attention. The President says, "These men waged war that we might know peace." The audience gives them not one but two rousing standing ovations. And I'm boo-hooin' again.
My friends at St. Aubin-sur-Mer pass by the reminders every day, not just on the anniversary of D-Day which is, if you remember, the English translation of Jour-J (meaning "an auspicious day" for something to happen). Their particular beach, St. Aubin-sur-Mer, was part of the Juno beach landing, in the Nan sector. This was the only beach headed up by Canadians, the British taking on Gold and Sword, and the US forces taking on Utah and, most famous of all, Omaha.
Many of the soldiers that died in the attack on Saint-Aubin, which was rather successfully defended by 100 German soldiers, were from Bathurst, New Brunswick, Canada, as the North Shore Regiment of New Brunswick was the first to land. Next came the 10th Armoured Reigment (Fort GarryHorse) and finally Le Régiment de la Chaudière de Quebec. 
Even today, during the summer, Saint Aubin-sur-Mer hosts an Acadian culture festival, largely in tribute and now also in honor of their sister city which is, not coincidentally, Bathurst. At any time, wherever you look, there are reminders.

Even in Paris, after all, we see reminders. This plaque, just around the corner from me reads "Here, killed by the SS on August 19, 1944, the Peacekeeper André Perrin". Two months after D-Day:

The Queen of England and her son, Prince Charles, are here today for the D-Day commemoration, theirs at the cemetery of Bayeux; never forget nor underestimate the British sacrifices and significance in the ultimate victory of the Allies.

These are just a few of the books we buy for the kids in the various museum and memorial shops in Normandy. Frankly, they're pretty gripping even for us adults. For example, did you know that the German plans showing all their Atlantic sea-walls were found, stolen, smuggled, and delivered to resistance fighters by René  Duchez, a French decorator who had been hired to paint German Commander Schnedderer's office? The story is depicted in the 1970s French film Atlantic Wall.


The book Bloody Omaha focuses, of course, on Pointe du Hoc, which I've mentioned before. But it bears repeating, today of all days: the first, most famous, and bloodiest invasion at Omaha Beach, and the fight to climb up to and dismantle the guns there. One thing the book mentions is that before "H-Hour" (that is, the critical hour of D-Day), the 329 B24 bombers that were supposed to knock out the German defenses were so scared of hitting Allied troops because of complete cloud cover that they delayed releasing the bombs for 30 seconds. That was enough so that none fell on the beach or bluffs and many were up to 3km inland. 117 of the planes flew back to England still fully loaded with their bombs. Isn't that just gut-wrenching, when you think about what was going on down below? In the end, 18 medium bombers of the 9th Air were able to swoop in and help.

Besides the beach, the memorials, the placards, the people, and the cement platforms for the guns, the spot is forever marked -- pock-marked in fact -- with the undulating craters from the bombing.


THE CHEESE: Camembert de Normandie
There is Camembert, and then there is Cambembert de Normandie. They're not the same, any more than a wine glass from IKEA is the same as Baccarat crystal. The Camembert de Normandie is the real deal, the gold standard, both the stereotype and the ultimate French cheese, with its rough, undulating, dented, and pock-marked crust.

The cheese is named, of course, after the village Camembert in Normandie. A true AOC cheese is made from raw cow's milk from -- what else? -- the Normandy breed of cow, which graze on the local grasses over half the year. In order to be AOC, it also must be farmhouse or artisanal and molded by hand.

The taste is reminiscent of butter -- one that's salty and complex. It's a soft cheese, one that looks like it will burst from the confines of its white, bloomy skin -- white from the Penicillium Candidum with a hint of red from Brevibacterium Linens. Truth be told, you can see that it's cool in the picture above; it's easier for me to move around for photos that way. At room temperature, it oozes out, like softened butter and is spreadable and unctuous.


Camembert de Normandie has a long and storied history. It's often traced back to 1791, where its creation is attributed to Marie-Christine Harel. However, if you read the book on the history of Camembert -- and it's the kind of cheese that actually does have an entire book dedicated to it -- you will learn that this is really a fabulous example of marketing, created just after World War II by the Abbot Guibe, priest of Camembert, who wrote in 1947 that he had found documentation explaining the creation of the cheese: the secrets were supposedly passed to Harel by monks fleeing from France to England during the French Revolution.

On the other hand, the famous cheese from Camembert has been recorded as far back as the early 1700s, and even earlier than that there are mentions in texts of similar style cheeses from the area. So which is the truth? I don't know; I wasn't there.

We do know it was presented to Emperor Napoléon III (the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte) for the inauguration of the train line between Paris and Granville, Normandie in 1863, during one of the post-revolution returns to a monarchy. He ordered a large amount to be delivered to his palace in Paris, but the order was difficult to fulfill. That is, until the discovery in 1880 by Louis Pasteur of pasteurization, at which time, they were able to make pasteurized versions that could last long enough for the trip. The wooden box -- which is one of the easiest ways to recognize a Camembert (de Normandie or not) -- also was invented at this point, and this also helped with the transportation.

In fact, the cheese started to travel so well that, starting in 1916, it was given as rations to French soldiers in World War I wherever they went. Nowadays, thanks to refrigeration and faster transportation, even the AOC unpasteurized versions can make a long trip.

In 1926, it was decided that "Camembert" is a generic term, and therefore can be used higgledy-piggledy. And, thus, the need to make the distinction between Camembert and Camembert de Normandie, AOC.
Remember Winston Churchill's rallying cry to the British during World War II: "Any country with 300 cheeses cannot die!"
Perhaps no cheese is more deeply associated with Normandy -- and, frankly, all of France -- as is Camembert. This is especially true after the marketing push just after World War II; you can understand that in 1947 the locals might have felt the need for some positive publicity and associations with Normandy.
Besides being a local cheese, it is one that those soldiers who survived the invasion of the beaches would certainly have eaten while on their tours in France. In his retelling of his story, one of the things that Clinton Riddle, former PFC, remembers is "seeing an old Frenchman milking a cow nearby, with the shells bursting all around him." This milk could easily have been destined for a Camembert.
Given that it is, arguably, the most obvious cheese to taste and write about, I have been saving the true Camembert de Normandie, AOC, for a very special posting, one deserving of such a fine, noble, timeless, powerful, meaningful cheese. And what could possibly be more deserving than a story about D-Day and those incredible soldiers, heroes one and all.


  1. THANKYOU for your wonderful posts. Our family in Sydney Australia love reading your posts and eagerly await each day's post and fromage story. Again thanks Den

  2. Wonderful stuff Kazz. I was there 10 years ago air dropping Canadian forces for the 60th anniversary. ..the 70th looked wonderful and wish we could have been there.

  3. I curious more interest in some of them hope you will give more information on this topics in your next articles. Tamim Iqbal


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