“Really there’s nothing exceptional about what we do. Sometimes I don’t understand why this way of working, which is really the simplest form of cheesemaking, is considered so special. One of the most heartfelt compliments I’ve ever received was someone telling me ‘Your camembert tastes like how it used to in the past’.”
Patrick Mercier’s family have worked their farm near the village of Champsecret in Normandy for three generations. His grandfather built the farm with local stone during and after the Second World War, and the family have witnessed all the enormous changes to the rural environment which have taken place since.
As agriculture was industrialized, the Norman countryside lost a large number of its emblematic Normande breed of dairy cattle. Though the recipe for camembert can traced back to before the Normande cattle was first bred, it is hypothesized that the breed was selected for the suitability of its high-fat milk for the production of camembert.
“As we industrialized we were losing all these beautiful cows, and the traditional recipe for camembert too. At that time I was just an average farmer, selling my milk to industrial cheesemakers.” As Patrick puts it, he soon realized he was “working a lot for the people who bought my milk, and for the people who I bought my supplies from, but very little for myself.”
Transitioning to authenticity
In 1995 the Mercier farm embarked upon a process towards openness and transparency in their work. Patrick sold his Holstein cows, keeping only the Normande cattle, stopped feeding them silage and started growing high-quality grass on all their land. The farm has since made the transition to being 100% organic, just as it was when his grandfather first built it.
In 2000, Patrick did an internship in a small-scale camembert factory owned by a local family, and saw just how delicious the cheese could be when it was made with high-quality, grass-fed raw milk. Though it would be another ten years before Patrick started trying to make camembert himself, he traces his cheesemaking ambitions back to the experience.
Patrick explains: “I have always been simple and modest, but it pretentious of me to say I would make my own camembert just ten kilometers away from the Lactalis camembert factory, the world’s largest dairy company and biggest producer of camembert. Everyone around me tried to discourage me from going down this road, as nobody was making camembert on their farm anymore. People said it was impossible to make raw-milk cheese with organic milk.”
From hardship to success
Of course, Patrick didn’t listen to the naysayers. He quickly made headlines in local magazines: for the first time since anyone could remember, a farmer had actually starting producing its own camembert! This was in stark contrast to the usual news of family-owned farms and cheesemakers selling up or going out of business.
The concepts of truth and transparency underlie Patrick’s success. “From the grass the cows eat all the way to final product: I am happy to explain every step of the process.” He now sells camembert and its by-products (butter and crème-fraiche) in the most unconventional manner: the door to the shop is always left open. Clients simply walk in, help themselves and leave the money in a little jar. “It’s a mutual trust. My clients trust me to provide the most authentic camembert on the market, totally organic and made with the raw milk of a local breed.”
CAMEMBERT IN THE CURRENT CLIMATE
Recent times have been very difficult. As Nicolas Floret, the Presidium coordinator, tells us, Patrick has had to stop production for a week and then restart it gradually. It’s a loss of income, of sales, and of organization.
The hope is that all this doesn’t put in peril all the effort made so far, all the effort dedicated to natural farmhouse camembert by Patrick which had gained the attention of restaurants and chefs, including Olivier Roellinger in Brittany.
SOMETHING IS CHANGING
Patrick Mercier’s passion has proved to be contagious, and he now inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Janine Lelouvier, a young English woman, starting to produce a high-quality traditional camembert a couple of years ago together with her husband Denis. They only use milk from Normande cows, who are fed grass and barn-dried hay. They are currently fine-tuning their cheesemaking technique and have already started selling their cheese and butter, as well as some more innovative products like English fudge and raw milk marshmallows.”
Patrick believes that the demand for high-quality fermier camembert is there, and is pleased to help people like Janine to play their part in the revival of this important symbol of French cultural heritage.
Now Slow Food is launching a Presidium for Natural Farmhouse Camembert which aims to support and organize the producers, and to act as a point of reference for people who want to learn more about it, how to produce it and how to use its production for the revitalization of rural areas and the protection of biodiversity. In the long run, Slow Food hopes this new Presidium will pave the way for other local, traditional food producers to recognize the importance of preserving their artisanal know-how.
Having Patrick and Janine involved in the Slow Food movement will also help strengthen a positive trend in French agriculture, one which opens the door for more young people to reclaim our disappearing traditions and restore them to their former glory, so that future generations may be able to enjoy food that is good, clean and fair.
by Graham Martin, email@example.com