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What The Camembert Rind Does For The Cheese Inside

For lovers of Camembert, the downy white rind is the tart bite that balances out the fat-laden, oozing, pungent layer inside.

For a group of Swiss bioengineers, that moldy rind is one of nature's greatest living surfaces, doing double duty as a shield and a cleaner. The rind allows the cheese's deep flavor and aroma to mature, but also defends it against microorganisms that could spoil it. The cheese repays the fungi on the rind by supplying it with nutrients.

So amazing is the rind that the scientists, who are interested in designing "smart," functional materials, used it as an inspiration to build their own living material. The researchers describe their work in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We were interested in how the fungi claims the whole cheese for itself," Lukas Gerber, a researcher at the Institute for Chemical and Bio-Engineering in Zurich and an author of the paper, tells The Salt. "So we took this concept of the fungi defending its food and combined it for the first time with artificial materials."

Gerber say that living materials modeled off cheese rinds could be useful to make products with self-sterilizing surfaces.

But how does Camembert even get its rind in the first place?

The cheese hails from the French province of Normandy, where various legends claim it came into being sometime between 1680 and 1791. (Normandy is "the mecca of bloomy white rinds," like Brie and Camembert, according to the famed Murray's cheese shop in New York.)

Its inventors, whoever they were, figured out that if you take whole, raw milk, curdle it with rennet, and then hand-ladle it into small, single molds without breaking the curd, you get an exceptional cheese.

When the cheeses come out of the the mold, they are coated with Penicillium candidum bacteria and put on the shelf to age for a few weeks. At 30 to 35 days, the cheese has reached "a point," the French expression for perfect ripeness.

I've never tasted a true, raw milk Camembert — one made for the French. Here in the U.S. we only import Camembert that has been pasteurized — a requirement by U.S. food safety officials for cheese to be sold here. But I'm intrigued by the mushroom aroma the real thing is said to have. One cheese columnist poetically described a superior Camembert as having "hints of garlic, barnyard and ripe laundry."

The Camembert rind has also been compared to human skin.

"When the integrity of the rind or skin is challenged, through cutting a cheese or, in the case of a person, a wound, the integrity of the interior of the cheese (or person) is also challenged," one gourmet cheese expert told The Nibble, a specialty food magazine.

So critical is the rind to the integrity of the cheese that Camembert connoisseurs insist the cheese should be eaten within two to three days once its seal has been broken.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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