The Many Faces of Brie

See how innovations of a classic favorite are taking the industry by storm.

Brie has not changed much since food writer Mimi Sheraton’s days at the New York Times. In 1979, she penned the article, “The Best of Brie: What to Look For.” Four decades later, much of what she had to say remains instructional regarding real French Brie.

Authentic Brie is unpasteurized, aged only four to six weeks, and has a short shelf life. Originally created for local consumption, it’s impractical to import, since the USDA requires unpasteurized cheese to be aged at least 60 days. France does export longer-lasting pasteurized versions. While not exactly the same, some come close.

Since Sheraton’s writing, the artisan cheese movement has taken off. Increasingly, it’s not necessary to import. America can now boast many sumptuous Brie-like cheeses. Not content to be mere imitators, American artisan cheesemakers, harnessing creativity and entrepreneurial know-how, have powered explosive growth in bloomy-rinders. But it’s helpful to understand where it all began.

What is Real French Brie?

Brie dates back to 8th Century Seine-et-Marne, a region just east of Paris, which includes Meaux and Melun. Anyone can label a cheese “Brie” but not with the descriptors “de Meaux” or “de Melun.” These locales were awarded the coveted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) by the French government in 1980, then the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) by the European Union in 2009. Brie de Meaux PDO and Brie de Melun PDO must be made completely in the designated regions from unpasteurized cow milk, contain at least 45% butterfat in its dry matter and have a white rind naturally populated by molds, in particular, Penicillium camemberti and candidum.

Brie de Melun is said to predate all the other Bries. But Sheraton preferred the de Meaux. People often ask what the difference is between Brie and Camembert de Normandie. About a thousand years! Like so many other bloomy-rinded cheeses, Camembert was based on Brie de Meaux. Marie Harel in 1791, in consultation with an abbot from Meaux, created Camembert as a smaller, denser cheese.

Brie de Meaux PDO is formed into large wheels up to 14 inches in diameter. Only an inch thick, it’s a thinner cheese than most “Bries.” The paper-thin rind is not snow-white, but an off-white closer to the shade of button mushrooms. As de Meaux matures, streaks of russet appear. Brie de Meaux’s seasonal peak is December-March, according to Sheraton. When ripe, the paste is “sunny, straw yellow and should bulge at the sides…it has a telltale aroma… fruity and (raw) mushroomy with a hint of winey fermentation.” Others describe woodland, earthy mold, cruciferous vegetables, floral, wet straw and herbacious notes. Fermented and ammoniac odors are the harbingers of over-ripeness. Flavors may include a savory sweetness, almond or nut, and a tangy finish. When sliced, the rind should hug the paste. If the cheese, Sheraton added, “collapses with runniness it is over-ripe, while a solid chalky curd at the center signifies under-ripeness.”

Double Cream or “Crème”
versus Triple

Traditional Brie contains between 45-50% butterfat in the dry matter, but can vary up to 63%. Sheraton emphasized the French preference at the time for the lower end of that range. That still sounds high in fat, doesn’t it? It’s actually comparable to hard cheeses, since these have less moisture. An ounce of cheddar contains approximately 9 grams of fat. Brie de Meaux PDO has 5 grams. A double cream is between 60-74% butterfat. Triple cream begins at 75%. The added cream swells the fat content to 8-12 grams per ounce.

Molds, Yeasts and the Rind

At the dawn of cheese history, affinage began by chance in caves and cellars endowed with ambient bacteria, molds and yeasts. As science advanced an understanding of these processes, cheesemakers learned to control for preferred microbes. The bloomy rind of Bries is formed by the molds, Penicillium camemberti and/or Penicillium candidum, which break down the protein and fat to create a creamy texture. Some Brie-like cheeses also contain the yeast Geotrichum candidum to produce a sweeter, milder paste.

It is estimated that 10% of the population is allergic to the antibiotic penicilin. Naturally, a person with such sensitivities may wonder whether mold-laden cheese is safe for them. P. camemberti and P. candidum are different strains than the antibiotic, so many people who are allergic have no problem consuming the white or blue molds (P. roqueforti or P. glaucum) in cheese. But not everyone! If you suspect a penicillin allergy, please consult a physi-cian. The good news is there’s an alternative. The yeast Geotrichum candidum. You will find some excellent Geotrichum-ripened options listed in the accompanying side bar.

Brie with Other Milks

Classic Brie is made from cow milk, but in Europe goat and sheep milks have been used as alternatives or in combination with cow milk. American innovators are creating goat Brie as well as mixed milk Brie types.

How to Keep It

Once cut, light and air cause a loss of moisture and flavor, so avoid pre-cut plastic-wrapped wedges unless they are sliced for you. At home, immediately remove the plastic. Re-wrap the wedge in cheese paper or seal in a snug zip-lock bag. Consume within a week. Unless planning to serve the entire wedge, slice off a portion and return the rest to the refrigerator. Once brought to room temperature, Brie should not be re-refrigerated.

Breathing Time

Perhaps you’ve read that cheese should be brought to room temperature 30-60 minutes before serving? Experiment. Cheese readiness varies with type, density, temperature and humidity. The sweet spot may be between two and six hours. In my locale, the optimal for a slice of Cremont was approximately one-and-a-half hours. Marin Traditional Brie needed about three hours.

How to Serve It

Sheraton remarked that the French don’t serve Brie with salad, rather, as a separate course before dessert. She also opined that Brie is best accompanied by crunchy French bread. That makes Brie a great choice for lunch. Pair it with fruit, dark chocolate with berry notes, red wine, champagne or dessert wine.      

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