One of the world’s greatest cheeses and the most famous from France, Brie is a soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese named after the historic French region where it originated. The elegant cheese is characterized by a smooth, edible, white downy rind, and a creamy rich, buttery interior. Very soft and savoury, Brie practically oozes at the peak of ripeness, displaying earthy mushroom overtones and a slight hint of ammonia.
Because the “Brie” name is not protected, there are many varieties made around the world, particularly in North America, Germany and Great Britain. But as any connoisseur will tell you, French Brie is best, especially Brie de Meaux if you can get it. Made outside of Paris since the eighth century, this finest Brie presents an indescribable sweetness and a very soft combination of hazelnut and fruit aromas. Other Brie varieties of note include Brie de Melun, Brie de Montereau and Brie de Nangis.
A Cheese Fit for Royalty
According to legend, Charlemagne had his first taste of Brie in 774 and instantly fell in love with it. Since then, the velvety cheese has been a favourite of noblemen throughout the world. It’s been said that during the French Revolution, Louis XVI’s last wish was for a final taste of Brie. And in 1815, the Congress of Vienna officially recognized Brie as a “royal cheese” when 30 European ambassadors cast votes in its favor. Brie became eternally known as “roi de fromages” (king of cheeses) and “fromages des rois” (cheese of kings).
Brie can be made from whole or skimmed milks, and milks that are raw or pasteurised. After the curd is obtained, the cheese is cast into moulds, traditionally with a perforated ladle or shovel called a “pelle à brie.” The moulds are filled with several thin layers of cheese and drained for approximately 18 hours.
After the cheese is taken out of the moulds, it is salted and inoculated with Penicillium candidum. This fungus creates a light crust on the surface and softens the cheese as it continues to move toward the centre. So unlike many other cheeses, Brie actually ripens from the outside in. Brie is typically aged in cellars for at least four weeks.
When ripe, Brie will be perfectly soft and creamy throughout. As you shop, look for rounds that are plump, but no more than one inch thick. When thicker than that, the cheese may over-ripen at the edges before ripening in the centre. Brie is best purchased when it feels resilient to the touch. And don’t be concerned if the rind shows some pale brown edges.
Standard wheels of Brie are 8½ to 14 inches in diameter. Smaller wheels, called “Petite Brie,” are 5½ to 8½ inches. You’ll also find Brie wedges (“Pointe de Brie”) and versions made with other types of milk or various herbs and spices.
When young, Brie feels firm to the touch; when riper, it feels spongy. To bring your cheese to perfect creamy ripeness, wrap it tightly and store at a cool room temperature for a day or two after purchase. Once the cheese has ripened, store it tightly wrapped in the refrigerator and be sure to enjoy it with in a few days.
If any mould appears on Brie, or any soft cheese, it is no longer safe to eat and must be discarded.
For maximum flavour, bring Brie to room temperature before serving or using in recipes. Simply let it rest on the counter for 30 to 60 minutes.
The natural white rind of soft-ripened Brie is edible, and makes an elegant presentation when offering the cheese as an appetizer or dessert. However, when serving Brie with wine, it’s best to remove the rind, as its salty ammonia overtones will overpower the vintage.
To do this, use a sharp knife to cut the rind away – this is easier done when the cheese is chilled. Another option is to soften the cheese at room temperature and then use a spoon to scoop the cheese from the rind.
Brie is a gastronomical luxury whether served at room temperature or smoothly melted into cooked recipes. Top a round with your favourite flavour of jam and bake in the oven until the cheese starts to ooze. Or, toss chunks of Brie (rind removed) with cooked pasta like rotini or caveat for a very sophisticated macaroni and cheese.
And while an elegant option for any occasion, Brie is perhaps at its best when packed in a romantic picnic lunch for two. Spread it on crackers, croissants, or crusty breads and enjoy with fruits like green apples, strawberries, pears, and grapes. Brie also loves the company of a good wine – pair it with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Red Bordeaux or Champagne.