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Friday, April 28, 2017

The myth and true story of Marie Harel, Brie and Camembert Cheese

Historian Kyle Weissman writes an article in response to Google's recent doodle commemorating the 256th birthday of Marie Harel, the greatest producer of Brie Cheese in France and the inventor of camembert Cheese. Or was she? The story or Brie Cheese and its close relative camembert is as old as France herself. From the battlefields of Lombardy, the court of Charlamange and Henry IV, to the French revolution and the Vendee Uprising. 

The story of Cheese in France is an amazing one. In fact throughout the medieval world, Cheese was as important as was bread. Bread was an important matter of politics and religion. It was a matter of political stability as well as religion. Bread was used in the manufacture and distribution of the holy eucharist, which in the hands of a priest, monk or bishop became the body and flesh of God, the lord Jesus Christ.

Bread like cheese was important for politics. The feudal lords were known as hlaflords, lord of the loaves. The peasants looked to their lords for military protection in exchange for service and bondage to their estates.It was a staple of medieval diet. If a lord failed to feed his subjects, instability was the end result. Sadly, due to wars and unpredictable weather patterns as well as corruption in court, outbreaks of famine were commonplace.

The story of cheese is also like bread an important matter for religion as well as politics. Originally, it was the monasteries of Europe who manufactured the cheeses. They were the main source of income from feudal lords and merchants who sold and produced the wheels of cheese that would feed the peasants who worked the land, that entertained the lord's dinner guests and that funded the church's mission in Europe.

The cheese wheels manufactured in the monasteries of Europe and sold to merchants and lords were the wheels that drove and funded the early church and funded its conversion and enlightening of Europe , the wheels that greased the war machine that beat back the Islamic Moors from France and Spain and funded the crusades in the holy land.

There many Cheese stories and how Cheese shaped politics in the middle ages to be told to be sure. Such as how Cheshire cheese the favorite of Henry VIII made at a monastery lead to motivating its destruction and looting by cromwell to seize the recipe while in turn, funding the smuggling of catholic priests into Tutor England under bloody Bess. Or how Napoleon Bonaparte became a patron of Roqefort Cheese which saved it from being banned from courts in Europe and how Byzantine merchants sold cheese wheels to the Turkish Sultan as ransom in a temporary peace.

Today however we  focus more on the history of camembert cheese and Brie from which it is derived. Brie was declared by the holy Roman Emperors and their feudal assembly known as the Diet, the king of cheeses many times. Enjoyed by peasant and Emperor alike,Brie is one of the worlds most oldest and beloved of cheeses, a must for every wine snob and good on its own. Some people have been known to use it as a spread, others  eat it as it is rhind and all.

One of the greatest promoters was Emperor Charlamange, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, grandfather of France. The story is a  favorite of mine as related by his biographer Eginhard and by food historian Maguelonne Toussaint Samat who writes in his work, HISTORY OF FOOD as follows:

After the fall of the Roman Empire ... the monks of the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, thanks to whom the population did not starve to death entirely during the Dark Ages, were the pioneers of the new cheese-making industry of medieval times. If the chronicles of Eginhard, Charlemagne's biographer, are to be believed, it was in one of these monasteries -- probably the abbey of Vabres near Roquefort -- that the Emperor, another lover of cheese, was given a sheep's milk cheese veined with mould. Much to his surprise, he liked it. He made the prior promise to send two crates of this cheese a year to Aix-la Chapelle, thus nearly ruining the poor community. Charlemagne was equally enthusiastic about the cheese of Reuil in Brie. A man of discernment, he pronounced it 'one of the most marvelous of foods', and requisitioned two crates of this cheese as well, to round off his dinners at Aix.

According to legends as told by Emperor Charlamange's biographer Charlamange was a patron of cheeses particularly Brie and Roquefort. Charlamange traveled throughout the empire to ensure that the area was secure from barbarians and moors and to ensure that his lords  were efficient and trustworthy. Unfortunately he loved it so much he failed to pan in davance. At the Reuil in Brie as in Roquefort, he ordered too much cheese and when a famine hit the area as it did often during his time, the people had nothing to eat but a bag of gold. Most of the peasants and monks starved.

It was of course mostly a legend. We cannot confirm that this true. The Monks of Saint Gall and Eginhard are the only sources for this tale which may have been exaggerated.

With the patronage of rulers and bishops, the sale and manufacture of cheese spread throughout the empire and Christendom. King Henry IV of England also fell under its spell while campaigning in France. The Queen, Joan Of Naverre ordered that it be served at all banquets.

But it was not until around the close of the 18th century and during the middle of the 19th century that the consumption of Brie became popular worldwide rather than within the banquet halls and courts of Europe. It is here we learn the story of Madame Marie Harel.

The manufacture of Brie and other cheeses was done less monastic orders and more often at the time in Chateaus owned by the aristocracy and the bourgeois class, the merchants, tradesmen and Patrons of the cities and Boroughs of Paris and other metropolitan districts. And many had their own distinctive traits with their cheeses such as that of Le Manor Du Beaumoncel in Camembert in the Normandy region of France which had a distinct earthy flavor.

It was here On April 28th 1761, that Marie Harel, the woman credited with the  invention of Camembert Brie cheese was born. Though this is not really true.

Camembert Cheese had already been known in French circles. The French writer Thomas Corneille wrote of Camembert on his travels Normandy in 1708 fifty three years before Marie was born. Marie did however work at the manor her whole life manufacturing many kinds of Brie in particular Camembert.

The legend of Marie Harel came about from her grandson Cyrille Paynel who in 1840s before Marie's death opened a cheese factory that manufactured camembert. The family held a monopoly over its manufacture until around 1870.  To advertise Cyrille spread the legend of his Grandmother who along with a fugitive of the French Revolution invented this robust and pleasing cheese known as Camembert.

The legend goes  that sometime during the beginning of the French revolution, The Abbot Charles-Jean Bonvoust of brie where Brie was made was in hiding from Robbspierre and the Commitee of Public safety which had made a law that required all priests and bishops to swear an oath on the new constitution. The constitution made church and state separate, confiscated and nationalized church property and made it punishable by death for priests to refuse to swear obedience to the new constitution.

Pope Pius VI forbade all priests to take the oath under pain of excommunication and that those who had must renounce it. Which most did many at the cost of their own lives. Despite guarantees of religious freedom in the French constitution, religion, particularly the catholic faith was a capitol offense. Abbot Bonvoust was one who reneged on the oath and hid in the manor from the wrath of the Committee of Public safety.

At the manor, Abbot Bonvoust shared his knowledge of making cheese Marie and the staff  in the dairy. They had a special friendship and together invented Camembert cheese. Marie and the people of Camambert hid the Abbot until in 1801 when Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor of France and signed a concordat with the Papal states, ending for the time being the persecution of clergy.

According to Cyrille, the recipe had been passed down to him from Grandmere' to make this great cheese known as Camembert. False...

Its not the first time that culinary history had been perverted by up and coming entrepreneurs. This was  especially rampant the early 20th century. The manufacturers of Prince pasta and Chef Boyardee for instance  made the false claim that Marco Polo introduced pasta from Asia to Italy. In truth Pasta had been around since ancient antiquity pre-dating the Roman Empire.

Ragu, Kraft and others once claimed that Tomatoes were  largely thought to be poisonous. In the late 1700s, Tomatoes were  said to poison the aristocracy. In Britain and America they were avoided but then in the 1800s Founding Father Thomas Jefferson proved to everyone that this was not so and in public ate an entire bucket of Tomatoes in public. He became famous throughout the world.

This is false. The urban legend spread because nobility tended to eat off lead pewter dishes. The acidic quality of tomatoes caused the lead to be absorbed into the tomato leading to high deaths of lead poisoning among the nobility. Not just that but many things such as their clothes, perfume, wall paper the furniture, their chinaware all had unhealthy levels of toxic chemicals such as lead.

There is no record that Thomas Jefferson or anyone did such a thing. At any rate Tomatoes in the Georgian period were ornamental decorations rather than food. It was only in Italy and France that they were consumed. and they still were even during the hysteria craze of poisonous tomatoes.

Finally there was the story of Pizza. It made its debut in America with the arrival of Italian immigrants in the 19th century. By 1900 its popularity grew incredibly. Pizza manufacturers and restaurants all came up with creative stories about where it came from to entice credulous American audiences.

For instance, the pie was invented in Naples by Rafaelle Esposito on 11 June 1889, to honour the Queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. Hence the origin of the Margherita. This is unsubstantiated. Others claim that Marco Polo introduced pizza  along with pasta  from China. that Pizza was originally a scalion cake.

This is not so. The earliest references  to Pizza were made as early as the 10th century AD. It is also noted  that the Romans enjoyed similar meals and that the Pizza Pie was enjoyed probably as early  as Rome's height.

One more before I finish. Dannon Yogurt's ridiculous commericals about Soviet Georgia AKA old people in Russia which claims that the majority of people in Georgia live over 100 years old. They attribute this to eating large amounts of yogurt. It shows an 89 year old man who liked Dannon so much, he had two cups. That pleased his mother, an elderly woman probably over 100 who pats his head.

This is an exaggeration. Yes, some Caucasian countries like Georgia have a lot of people who live long but it is a combination of genetics and a robust active farming life. These are agrarian countries that do not consume manufactured garbage like we do and where exercise like farming is routine. Healthcare? Mostly traditional medicines.

The average life expectancy is 75. By the way, Armenia  has begun to surpass Georgia in life  expectancy and elderly age.

Unfortunately, then as now, America and Europe will believe anything and everything they hear. As the old  saying goes, if you tell a lie long enough, it becomes true. America's failing education and our lack of love of history and learning make urban legends like these more truth than myth.

Of course, no one would be fascinated in the story of some French factory owner who decided to take credit for a tradition in his hometown. A lovely story of friendship, exile and fugitives is more romantic and more appeasing.

Nonetheless, myth and fantasy are more profitable and entertaining than truth as we've seen with Google's newest doodle and as we've seen in Whole Foods and local delis lately.


Anonymous said...

Great article!

I'm having some Camembert with my wine right now

Anonymous said...

Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy? I didn't know people believed that!

My family is Italian Sicilian and Polish. We never heard that or believed that. We always knew Pasta was around in the old country since before Marco Polo was born.

Tomatoes, Grandpa told me that they had heard that the Americans and some people in Europe thought Tomatoes were poisonous. They didn't know why. He told me that when his father, my Great Grandad brought the family here to the States they were surprised to hear that some people in America believed that. Great Grandad had heard when he was younger that in some countries even in Europe there was a myth that the Tomato was poisonous.

I had no idea about that story about Thomas Jefferson. If he did. Good for him.

Dannon Yogurt. No its because in Georgia and Armenia they don't eat Junk food and they don't live sedentary lifestyles like we do. They are very active. That's why they are healthier and live longer than we do.

mainestategop said...

I am very fond of gastronomic history of food. I love it when Kyle tells about that.

People still believe in these myths about food that either came about from ignorance or advertisements. My wife read a book by Joe Bastianich about pasta a few years ago. She told me he also believes that horsepucky about Pasta being invented solely by the Chinese and introduced to Italy by Marco Polo. Kyle was talking a lot about it.

He told me all about it. Pasta may have been brought to Italy by the Greeks or it was there before. In fact he told me roman merchents made it to Asia and may have introduced pasta to the Chinese instead.

Pizza, it was enjoyed by the Romans. Described as bread and cheese pie. It was more like canoli or stromboli and wasn't like what we have today.

There's so much about the ancient world we don't know about.

Anonymous said...

Camembert Cheese has always been around. So was Brie. Its just an invention

The Abbot wasn't even from Brie and was nowhere near there.