Exploring Brie: A Cheese Rich in Flavor and History
Now on that day, being the sixth day of the week, he was not willing to eat the flesh of beast or bird. The bishop, being by reason of the nature of the place unable to procure fish immediately, ordered some excellent cheese, white with fat, to be placed before him. Charles…required nothing else, but taking up his knife and throwing away the mold, which seemed to him abominable, he ate the white of the cheese. Then the bishop, who was standing nearby like a servant, drew close and said...
Why do you do that, lord Emperor? You are throwing away the best part.' On the persuasion of the bishop, Charles… put a piece of the mold in his mouth and slowly ate it and swallowed it like butter. Then, approving the bishop's advice, he said 'Very true, my good host,' and he added, 'Be sure to send me every year two cartloads of such cheeses.— Quoted from a biography of Charlemagne by a monk at a monastery in the late 9th century.
Who Moved the Cheese?
Charlemagne (also known as Charles the Great) was a medieval emperor and king of the Franks, a Germanic tribe in what is now Belgium. He ruled much of Western Europe and was committed to uniting all of his peoples into one kingdom and bringing them under Christian rule.
According to legend Charlemagne fell in love with a certain cheese when he first dined on it at a monastery east of Paris. (Lovers of Roquefort will claim the cheese to be theirs, but I strongly disagree!)
What Exactly is Brie?
Cheeses are categorized according to many different factors – moisture content, type of milk (cow, goat, sheep or a mixture thereof) used in the making of the cheese, fat content, and the length of time the cheese has been ripened (set aside to age) are the primary considerations.
Brie (along with Camembert and Coulommiers) is categorized as a soft-ripened cheese.
You are no doubt familiar with the soft fresh cheeses (cream cheese, cottage cheese, mozzarella, and ricotta), but ripened soft cheeses are covered with a thin layer of rind which is white, yields to gentle pressure, and is edible.
Yes, the white rind looks and even feels a bit strange, but you can eat it; in fact, in my house, my daughters fight over it.
I was one of those. I meddled with dark powers. I summoned demons. I ate the entire little cheese, including the rind.— Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man's Fear
What's In a Name?
Unlike other cheeses of the area, the name brie is not protected -- “brie” can be used by anyone, but a true ‘tastes-like-it-should” brie must be made in the place where it originated – the Seine-et-Marne, an area near Paris.
Or so we have been led to believe.
There is another legend, a legend that takes us a far way, to the east and south of France, long before Charlemagne, long before the monks. According to “The History of Brie” as told at ehow.com:
The earliest form of Brie was purportedly created by accident in the Middle East. The story goes that a nomad filled his saddlebag with milk before embarking on a long horseback journey. His animal carcass saddlebag was lined with rennet (an enzyme also called rennin or chymosin) and the combination with the milk created a watery liquid (whey) and solid, white lumps (curds) that was an ancestor, perhaps, of the first Brie.
Whether an accident in the saddle bag of a hapless wanderer or the brainchild of Frankish monks, the popularity of brie extended beyond the borders of France. It is rumored that King Henry IV of England was introduced to brie by his wife, Queen Margot. So taken was he by the bloomy cheese that when given the choice of the company of his mistress or dining with Margot, he resided with the cheese.
The cheese of kings became the king of cheeses in the 19th century. It was then that, according to www.pongcheese.co.uk:
At one of history’s most superior banquets, the Congress of Vienna, the 19th-century French diplomat Talleyrand reportedly called for a break from divvying up the nations, following the fall of the French Empire, in order to stage a cheese contest. More than sixty varieties of cheese were brought together, which were all tasted with great attention. Lord Castlereagh represented the English with Stilton, Dutch minister Baron de Falck nominated Limberger, Italy presented Strachino and Switzerland put forward Gruyere to name but a few. Duke de Talleyrand remained quiet until the end, when the Brie was brought in. After a vote they all praised French gastronomy and maintained that there was no other cheese that matched up to the Brie de Meaux and declared a new king ‘Le Roi des Fromages’ (King Of Cheeses).
How is It Made Today?
Brie is made from whole cows’ milk to which rennet is added. It is then warmed to 99 degrees F (39 degrees C), ladled into shallow molds, and allowed to drain for 18 hours. The rounds of cheese are then removed from their molds, salted, sprayed with Penicillium candidum, and then aged for four to five weeks.
OK, But It's Not Like Other Cheeses I've Used
How can I tell when it's gone "bad"?
Don’t purchase (much less consume) a soft-ripened cheese that is pink-ish (not white) and/or has an ammonia smell.
Brie should be kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator, in a tightly-sealed container. The “best-used-by” date should be heeded as soft bloomy cheeses have a relatively short shelf life. Unlike firm cheeses (from which mold can be cut), mold on a soft cheese will affect the entire piece of cheese; this means that if your brie shows signs of mold, all of it must be discarded.
Carb Diva, Are There Recipes?
Well my goodness, who do you think you're talking to? Of course there are recipes! But if you recall what I said about blue cheeses:
"I promised recipes and honestly, there are so many different ways that blue cheeses can be used, this article would be voluminous were I to attempt to cover then all. I will give you a few recipes, but then I will also provide some suggestions and allow you to use your imagination."
The same holds true for brie; it is more of an appetizer/snack cheese.
Brie and Fruit
This is absolutely a marriage made in (cheese) Heaven. Brie longs for a partner, it sighs with deep yearning for a soul mate. Tangy, earthy, buttery brie was made to be served with fruit. Well, not all fruits. As with the blue cheeses (or any cheese for that matter) I would avoid citrus or any fruit that is greatly acidic. But if you have an oozy brie looking for a partner, you might consider one (or more) of these:
- fresh or dried figs
- blueberries or blackberries
- fresh or dried apricots
And, while you are in the snacking mood, what about a whole-grain cracker? Add a grain to your fruit and cheese and you have a wonderful mid-day meal.
Brie in Puff Pastry
This is a luxurious appetizer (or, if you consume as much of it as do I, it could be a guilty-pleasure meal). Start with:
ingredients and materials
- 1 sheet of puff pastry, thawed (I like Pepperidge Farms)
- 1 10-12 ounce round of brie
- flour for rolling out the dough
- rolling pin
- 1 egg PLUS 1 teaspoon water, beaten (this is an egg wash 'glue' to hold things together and make a pretty shellac)
- pastry brush (for adorning the brie/puff pastry mound with egg wash)
- rimmed baking sheet
- parchment paper (for lining the baking sheet)
- non-stick cooking spray
- Goodies (see list below!)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Roll out puff pastry on lightly-floured surface to a square about 11 inches by 11 inches.
- Place your round of brie in the center of the pastry, and then top it with your choice of "goodies".
- Bring the sides/edges of the pastry up over the brie to form a neat package. You want to totally encase the brie in the pastry. Brush a bit of the beaten egg over the edges to seal.
- Place the brie onto the parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Brush a bit more egg wash on the brie package (top and sides, but don't let it 'puddle' on the baking sheet).
- Bake until the package is browned, about 35 to 40 minutes.
- Employ extreme patience and allow this amazing treat to sit for about 10 minutes. Trust me -- your brie cheese will still be hot and amazing, but not like lava.
Goodies for the brie package:
- dried fruit (cranberries, sliced figs, apricots, apples)
- cranberry sauce
- raspberry or blackberry jam
- orange marmalade
- cherry, apricol, or peach preserves
- chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, slivered almonds)
- candied walnuts or pecans
- sautéd mushrooms
- mango chutney (I like Major Grey's)
- crisp cooked crumbled bacon
- oil-packed dried tomatoes
- caramelized onions
Brie in Soup
A few years ago I created a vegetarian version of French onion soup for my family. In place of the Gruyere cheese which normally sits atop the toasted bread crouton, why not a slice of creamy brie?
Vegetarian French Onion Soup
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 red onions, thinly sliced, about 2.5 lbs.
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper, ground
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup canned diced tomatoes, drained
- 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
- 1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 day-old baguette, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
- 1/2 cup Parmesan, grated
- 1/2 cup Swiss or Gruyere, grated
- Sauté the onions in the olive oil in a large sauté pan or dutch oven over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until browned--about 30 minutes. (This first step requires a bit of patience. The onions need to caramelize low and slow to develop the rich, sweet flavor one associates with french onion soup. Hurry the process with high heat and you'll end up with bitter, burned onions. If you don't allow the onions to develop a deep golden color you'll end up with flabby, watery, and tasteless onions.)
- Increase heat to medium-high. Add salt and pepper, wine, and tomato paste. Cook until wine is almost evaporated (about 5 minutes). Add water, tomatoes, and herbs. Bring to a boil and then cover; reduce heat to simmer and cook about 20 minutes. Stir in soy sauce. Discard bay leaves. We prefer to leave the tomato pieces in our soup, but you may strain the broth and discard the solids if you wish.
- OK, now you have the vegetarian stock. And you can use this for so many more things than French onion soup. So, keep this recipe in your back pocket (as my dad would have said) for future reference. But, if you want to proceed to turn this into Ooey Gooey Cheesy Goodness, continue with the instructions below.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush bread slices with olive oil and bake in oven until edges are brown, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
- When ready to serve, whisk the 1/2 cup Parmesan into your hot broth. It’s important to whisk in the cheese at the last minute, or else the cheese will fall to the bottom of the pot and burn. Ladle the warm soup into heatproof bowls, and lay a slice of the baked bread over each bowl. Sprinkle a layer of Gruyere cheese over the bread, and place the crocks under the broiler until the cheese bubbles and browns.
Brie in Pasta
Kevin Lynch is the creative genius behind ClosetCooking, and shares this mouth-watering recipe with you here.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Linda Lum