CAMEMBERT, France — On a tiny farm tucked into the lush, green hillside of Normandy, Aude Sementzeff heats raw milk from cows up the hill until it curdles, then scoops it into molds to make a round, pearly white Camembert cheese.

For eight years, Sementzeff has been making the earthy, soft cheese in small batches to be sold in Paris stores, continuing a tradition that dates to the 18th century. So ubiquitous is Camembert in France that soldiers in the trenches of World War I ate it as part of their daily rations.

“Camembert is there at each step of our history,” Sementzeff, 41, said as she delicately salted each cheese and flipped it to perfect its rind. “So there is a strong link, I think, with French culture.”

But now this notoriously pungent delicacy is in trouble, as is brie, another celebrated French cheese enjoyed across the world.

The National Centre for Scientific Research, France’s state-run science agency, has warned that Camembert, brie and even blue cheeses “could disappear,” owing to a decline in the strains of fungi that give the beloved cheeses their unique taste, smell, color and texture.

“Blue cheeses may be under threat, but the situation is much worse for Camembert, which is already on the verge of extinction,” the research center wrote in a memo in January.

While many cheesemakers insist the problem isn’t quite that dire, they acknowledge that producing cheeses like Camembert is getting harder, a consequence in part of past efforts to engineer the perfect block. 

Scientists refer to fungi’s role in cheesemaking as “delicious rot,” and it’s a critical part of the arduous process of making a Camembert, which includes several weeks of aging. It can be added early on with other enzymes when milk is heated to form curds, or sprayed on the cheese later to help the ripening process and promote the soft, white rind prized by Camembert-lovers.


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