I’m not at all sure why more folks aren’t madly in love with Brie. After all, it once was quite literally declared the cheese of Kings. In late 1814 through mid 1815, the Austrians hosted the Congress of Vienna, a meeting of representatives from virtually all the European powers of the time, intended to forge a long term peace plan, subsequent to the Napoleonic wars. During the event, the French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, suggested a break in the negotiations, by way of a friendly cheese competition, with each country and state putting forth their finest, to be judged by all. Legend has it that Talleyrand-Périgord slyly waited until the end of the competition to bring forth Brie, after sixty some odd other cheeses had been sampled. A vote was held, and Brie de Meaux was declared, ‘Le Roi des Fromages’ the King of Cheeses.
Brie, like its popular cousin Camembert, is a soft-ripened cheese, (as opposed to soft, fresh cheeses, like cream, cottage, Neufchâtel, mozzarella,and ricotta). While the fresh, soft varieties are eaten right away, soft ripened spend some time gaining depth and complexity, as well as a thin rind that some find delicious and others quite literally cannot stomach – The rind is a bitter counterpoint to the creamy, buttery cheese itself – probably why there’s such a love/hate relationship with it – More on that in a bit.
Brie de Meaux, and Brie de Melun, which both hail from the Seine et Marne region, a Department due east of Paris, are the real McCoys, protected by the vaunted French AOC label, the Appellation d’origine Contrôlée, which means only Brie from that place may be called Brie de Meaux or Melun. That said, just plain old Brie is not a protected name, and can be made anywhere – Think of it as the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne – Both can be good, (and frankly, occasionally quite meh), but in either case, it behooves the consumer to know what it is they’re buying, and from whence it came, d’accord?
Bries are made with whole or partly skimmed cows milk, cured for a couple of days, and then placed in a cave at roughly 54° F. it’s during this aging period that the characteristic white rind forms. That rind consists of a hardened layer of cheese and some form of mold, one of the Penicillium varieties for both Brie and Camembert, plus some yeast, or a fungus such as Geotrichum Candidum. That might sound unappealing, but I assure you that you can indeed eat the rind without harm, and naturellement, the French claim it’s good for your gut. The rind is, in fact, absolutely critical to the final form of the cheese – it’s a living, breathing thing that actively works to break down the cheese, creating the creamy, (and sometimes, downright runny), texture that we love so much. Brie ages for anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks to reach maturity, during which it is lovingly turned by hand, assuring even aging. Brie de Meaux And Melun both do the full Monty at 60 days, which is why they’re the Champagne, if you will.
So, how does one chose Brie? Well, again, if you want the real deal, you need to look for Brie de Meaux, or Brie de Melun, and the accompanying AOC seal, or the words Appellation Contrôlée, on the label. Chances are what you get will be sublime and lovely, assuming you’ve bought from a scrupulous seller. Both versions are made from raw, (unpasteurized), milk. A whole round of Brie de Meaux weighs about 6 pounds, and is around 14” in diameter. Brie de Melun is smaller, at slightly over 3 pounds and roughly 11” in diameter. In general, Brie de Meaux is milder than Brie de Melun, which has a notably stronger taste and smell. The pinnacle of that trend is Brie Noir, Black Brie – It’s not Black at all, although the rind and cheese are distinctly brown, as opposed to the light creamy cheese and white rind we’re used to. Black Brie ages for up to a full year, and is much more pungent, with a dry, almost crumbly texture.
Now, all that does not mean, by any sense of the word, that Brie from other places isn’t good. Brie is made in America, Great Britain, Australia, and Brazil, that I’m aware of – There may well be more. There are herbed Brie’s, blue Brie’s, double and triple Brie’s (meaning, much higher milk fat percentage used in their making), and Brie made with milk from goats or sheep. There are also French non-AOC Bries, including Brie de Montereau, Île-de-France, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins, Brie fermier, Brie d’Isigny, Brie de Melun bleu, Brie petit moulé, and Brie Laitier Coulommiers, just to name a few. Again, just as you can get sparkling wine that doesn’t hail from Champagne, these alt Bries are well worth exploring.
As mentioned previously, if you buy from a reputable seller, you’re good to go, 99% of the time. Keep in mind that you’re unlikely to find, or afford for that matter, a whole wheel of Brie, so as with any other foods, let your eyes and nose and, if possible, mouth do the investigative work when choosing. Brie should have a white rind and a light, cream colored cheese, (not withstanding Brie Noir) – Don’t buy anything that has an off-color rind or flesh, or knew that smells bad. Lots of markets have expanded cheese shops these days – I mean, here in the Great Pacific Northwet, even the lowly Fred Meyer chain has a pretty damn fine cheese department, so go figure.
Store Brie in an air tight container, in the coldest section of your fridge, but better yet, plan on eating it right after you buy it – Soft ripened cheese has a short shelf life, indeed. If a stored Brie has an off-color mold on it, toss it, even if you don’t see the mold everywhere on the cheese – Trust me when I say that it’s there, and you shouldn’t eat it .
And what to do when we eat it? Many, many wonderful things. As part of a picnic lunch or dinner, Brie is delightful with good crackers, toast points rubbed with garlic, or straight with fruit – The tang of the fruit is a perfect contrapuntal note to the subtly sweet, creamy cheese – And again, the bitter rind adds a delightful third note to the chord. Apples, pears, and berries (straw, blue, black, and Marion are all lovely), figs, and apricots are great choices. Along that same vein, fruit preserves, dried fruit, and chutney are all very nice accompaniments.
If you prefer something more savory, good bacon, or pork belly is wonderful (big surprise there, huh?). Pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts are lovely, crunchy additions. Fresh mushrooms, like shiitake or morels, lightly sautéed, sun dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions shine as well. Fresh herbs, like basil, marjoram, garlic chive, rosemary, lemon thyme, or lavender are great choices, too.
My favorite way to incorporate these accoutrements is the venerable Brie en croute – Brie with a puff pastry or pie crust shell, baked and stuffed with whatever you like, (or, for that matter, straight up plain – If you’ve got good Brie, it’ll be plenty decadent, believe me). You can use single notes, or combine two or three for a truly lovely appetizer. Making puff pastry from scratch is truly laborious, but fortunately, you can get decent pre-made stuff almost anywhere these days, usually in the frozen food section of your local market. Here’s a few combinations to give a try to – Then branch out on your own.
Brie en Croute
1 8 Ounce wheel Brie
1 Sheet prepared Puff Pastry
If you’re adding goodies:
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
3 Tablespoons slivered Almonds
2 Tablespoons dry Sun-dried Tomatoes
1-2” spring fresh Rosemary
2 Tablespoons chopped Hazelnuts
2 Tablespoons dried Cranberries
2 teaspoons Honey
2 Tablespoons Bacon Lardons
2 Tablespoons chopped dried Apricots
1” – 2” spring fresh Lemon Thyme
Thoroughly thaw frozen puff pastry sheet – Don’t screw with it in any way, shape, or form until it’s completely thawed, or you’ll get thin sections at the folds, and you don’t want that.
If you’re doing bacon lardons, sauté those over medium heat until they’re crisp and much of the fat has been rendered. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.
If you’re using nuts, sauté them in melted butter over medium heat until they begin to turn golden brown, then onto clean paper towels to drain off the excess fat.
For the dried fruit or tomatoes, sauté them after the nuts are done, in the remaining butter. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in the center position.
NOTE: For all these options, you really don’t need to add much fat, so do dry them off prior to adding them to the Brie.
Unwrap the Brie and inspect to make sure all is well. If you’re squeamish, you may gently cut away the rind, but I strongly advise you to buck up and not do so.
Unfold the thawed puff pastry and drape that over a sauté pan, baking dish, etc, large enough to hold the wrapped Brie with some space to spare.
Add goodies to the top of the Brie.
Crack egg into a small mixing bowl and whisk to an even consistency.
Fold one corner of the pastry over the top of the Brie. Brush the outside of that corner with the egg wash, then brush egg on the bottom (facing) side of the next adjacent corner, and fold that onto the first. Continue with that process until you’ve got a nice, snugly wrapped parcel.
Evenly coat the outside of the puff pastry with the remaining egg wash.
Slide the Brie into the oven and bake, undisturbed for 30 minutes.
Remove the Brie from the oven and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
Serve with crackers, toast points, etc, and be ready to totally ruin your dinner in so doing.