I would bet a lot of money that if you were to ask 100 Americans to name a French cheese, the first thing 99 of them would say is “Brie”. In fact, I’d bet many of them wouldn't be able to name a single other French cheese. In fairness, Brie has a long and distinguished history. History tells of its consumption by Charlemagne in the year 774 and, in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, its anointment as the King of Cheese. Nonetheless, an equally important reason for this is that, in the United States, Brie might be the only French cheese one might see in a supermarket. It’s there in a cold case with the second-rate “Parmesan” cheese (parmigiano reggiano), blocks of feta (stored without brine), and nut-encrusted, wine-soaked Gouda.
I'm pretty sure that my first experience with Brie was at a friend’s “grown up” party once we all had decent jobs, where Doritos were replaced by “French bread” and imported beer replaced cans of domestic swill. (My memory at least!) For the most part, my own experience with Brie has been poor. Some Bries have smelled so strongly of ammonia (overripe and tightly wrapped) that they've been inedible. Others were just, well, inedible. All are made with pasteurized milk as well due to import restrictions. In short, I didn't reckon I was missing much by not ever buying Brie in France.
How wrong I was.
Last week I had what was easily the best piece of Brie I've ever had in my entire life, one that the employee at the fromagerie assured me was outstanding even from a French point of view. It sat there on a woven straw mat, one quarter of the original round remaining, unwrapped. I had asked the employee a simple question: “If I had to walk out of the store with only one cheese, what would that be?” He pointed to the Brie and starting describing how it was at its optimal age and it was really excellent. That was enough for me.
He was right. Later that evening when Mme Fromage and I ate it, we both marvelled at the taste and texture. At room temperature it was deliciously creamy, with a light, nutty flavor I’d never before tasted in Brie. We were blown away.
While I walked out of the store with two cheeses that day, not one (more on that in a future post), I will not soon forget the revelation of eating a truly fantastic piece of Brie.
About the Cheese
Milk: Cow, whole
Firmness: Semi soft
Defining characteristics: Thin white rind with a light yellow creamy interior. Properly aged it will have a light nutty flavor. Bries that are overripe may smell of ammonia due to the way bacteria grow in the rind. (Sometimes this will go dissipate.)
Traditional accompaniments: For my money, a crusty baguette is about all you need. Bries go great with fruity reds from Burgundy or even drier reds like those from Chinon or the Bordeaux region.
Origin: Île-de-France, the region containing Paris. Bries come from two main towns: Meaux and Melun.
Special facts: Both Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun are subject to strict guidelines under the French AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) designation. The guidelines relate to geographical origin and fabrication and are designed to guarantee the continuity of traditional food products. It has also earned the AOP distinction (appellation d’origine protégée), a European Union designation essentially equivalent to AOC.
Recipes: Brie features in everything from croquettes (basically fried cheese) to croque monsieur sandwiches. With some store-bought puff pastry or pie crust (homemade works too, of course) and some caramelized onions, it makes an awesome tart. (NB: pop this link into Google translate if you don't speak French and you'll be fine.)