There is a legend about the origins of Camembert. It goes like this:
In 1791, a dairymaid in northern France sheltered a priest from the region of Brie. He was running from the guillotine. To thank her, he showed her how to make Brie cheese. She added some innovations of her own, and voila! Camembert was born.
There's no way to know how true this story is, but the symbolism is obvious. Camembert is the gift of a fleeing priest, or — in other words — the result of divine intervention.
I asked Ben Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University and the author of a new study related to Camembert, whether he agrees: Is Camembert a miracle?
"Well, I don't think science can actually answer that question. I think that's a question for more spiritual scholars," Wolfe said.
But what Wolfe can tell me is that Camembert is the result of a special kind of mold, Penicillium camemberti. It only grows in caves in northern France. Until now.
Wolfe and his team were able to make the Camembert mold in his lab. He took an ancestor of the Camembert mold, which is found everywhere, and managed to speed up the natural evolutionary process.
"So what we did is, we took one of these wild blue molds and we put them on cheese in the lab. And every week, we gave them fresh cheese. Over and over and over again. And within about three or four weeks, they lost all that musty smelling aromas and they began to smell like beautiful, fresh cheese," he said.
This is about more than watching mold transform in a lab, however exciting that may sound. Wolfe said in a matter of five to 10 years, this experiment could have ramifications for cheese-makers around the world.
"The mold that we are using, that wild ancestor mold that we were using, was from Vermont. It was not from France. And so what we are excited by is the idea that we could recreate this domestication process, to create a California Camembert mold or a Vermont Camembert mold. So it suggests a new way to domesticate new strains for cheese making," Wolfe said.
That's pretty cool.
I spoke with Ihsan Gurdal, the owner of the cheese shop Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., to see what he had to say about all of this.
"Well, I think it's exciting that people are trying to do new things," Gurdal said.
But he said nothing can replace real Camembert, the Camembert from Normandy.
"The taste of mushrooms, the texture of the cheese, the luxurious creaminess of it. It's hard to match," he added.
What he's saying is that there's a lot that goes into exceptional cheese. The mold, sure. But there's the milk, the soil — the terroir, as the French say — the knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
And, maybe, a little divine intervention.