ST HILAIRE DE BRIOUZE, France (Jun. 5)
“If it’s not from Normandy, it’s not really Camembert,” Shmuel Elbaz says as he gives the characteristic French cheese a friendly prod to check for ripeness.
“The Jews don’t usually go for it this way though,” he says. “When you see people fingering Camembert in supermarkets, they’re checking that it’s soft and ripe. The Jews on the other hand generally check that it’s hard, which they believe proves the Camembert is fresh. But they’re learning.”
Elbaz produces the only Camembert in France that, for him, fulfills both of the necessary criteria — first, that it comes from Normandy, and second, that it’s kosher.
Elbaz is atypical in his passion for cheese: A religiously observant Jew, he is only too aware that the demands of the cheese gourmet don’t always go hand in hand with halachah, or Jewish religious law.
Principally, there’s the problem of rennet, a preparation from animal intestines that enables the milk to curdle, thereby turning it into cheese.
“We use only a fungus-based rennet, and the only person authorized to put it into the milk is the mashgiach,” or kashrut supervisor, Elbaz says.
“That’s the crucial phase, because that way he can testify that the cheese is kosher,” he says. “But I know that by using vegetable rennet, we can never truly produce the classic Camembert for the connoisseur. The animal rennet continues to work on the cheese, so it is naturally softer — but then again, the Jews like a harder, whiter Camembert.”
Interestingly, Jewish law technically permits the use of animal-based rennet, though it must come from an animal slaughtered in accordance with the halachah, kosher superviser Dov Coscas said.
Nevertheless, he added, the rabbis established a specific gezera — literally, a fence or prohibition — regarding the consumption of cheese.
“Like wine, it needs to be kosher even if the product itself contains no ostensibly non-kosher substance,” Coscas said.
The quantity of rennet in the cheese is so minuscule — about half a liter for 20,000 liters of milk — that religious prohibitions against the use of milk and meat simply don’t apply, Elbaz says.
Another “compromise” is the use of pasteurized rather than untreated milk in making the Camembert.
After the recent scare over mad cow disease, most cheese sold in France today is believed to be made from pasteurized milk.
“We can’t use untreated milk for export anyway, and the Americans have banned it,” Elbaz says.
Nevertheless, “I know you can get Camembert ‘cru’ ” — literally, raw or non-pasteurized — “in the U.S. There are some French people who smuggle it in,” he says.
Elbaz’s introduction to cheese came as a young boy in Algeria, where “we used to wake up to the smell of my mother making goat cheese.”
“We had some goats at home, like many Algerian Jews, and my mother would make the cheese very fat with colesterom,” the creamy, yellowish first milk produced after the birth of young mammals.
Not all North African Jews had the same milk-based food culture.
For example, among Tunisian Jews, many of whom emigrated to France in the 1950s and ’60s, many still do not use milk products.
“Ah, the Tunisians, my worst clients,” Elbaz says.
For Shavuot, Elbaz says, his company does particularly good business with the softer white cheeses. One reason is that many use the soft cheeses for the festival perennial, cheesecake.
However, the other reason owes as much to the cultural background of many French Jews — cheese holds a special place of honor in the French kitchen — as it does to the specific demands of halachah.
De Gaulle once famously said that it was impossible to govern a country of 500 cheeses, but even he didn’t have to deal with the halachic regulations governing the different sub-types of French cheese.
In many North African families, Elbaz says, the tradition is to eat a dairy meal on the first evening of Shavuot, but not at the expense of a larger, celebratory meat dish.
People therefore would eat a small hors d’oeuvres of soft cheese, quickly rinse their mouths, then head for the meat.
Hence, apparently, the reason for the fall in kosher Camembert sales at this time of year: Since the Normandy cheese is harder than a regular soft or cream cheese, falling into the category known as “pate molle,” a longer waiting time of at least an hour is required, Elbaz says.
Essentially, the longer the production time in making the cheese, the longer the halachic requirements for waiting to eat meat.
Coscas said that while different communities held different traditions, semi-hard cheeses such as St. Paulin, a Normandy neighbor of Camembert, required a longer wait. As for harder cheeses, such as Emmenthal or Cantal, some authorities even advised a six-hour waiting period, he said.
Coscas, however, pointed out that “these days it is difficult with modern production methods to find a true kosher hard cheese where the fermentation process continues for more than three weeks.”
“But one should still wait three or six hours after eating something like Dutch cheese,” he said.
Apart from the strictures of halachah, Elbaz notes certain “rules” for eating Camembert the way any self-respecting French gourmet would.
Primarily, the cheese should not be eaten cold but rather “left out of the refrigerator for between six and 12 hours and taken out of its wrapping to let it breathe like a good wine.”
Lest some fear that would spread the aroma about, Elbaz says, “a good cheese is one that smells.”
For tarte pastry
1 1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/5 cup cold water
2 cups fromage blanc or sour cream
11/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. corn starch
3 Tbsp. creme fraiche
Wait a few minutes before you put it in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes at 425 F. The tarte should be served cold. For a festive air, it can be served with strawberry or raspberry puree.