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Food and Drink

There’s nothing wrong with brie, if you’re in France

BRATTLEBORO—You might think it’s very odd that a cheesemonger would tell you not to buy a cheese, but here I go: if you’re going to shell out the bucks to buy brie, you’re better off spending that money on another variety.

Now, there’s really nothing wrong with brie... if you’re in France. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration’s regulations on dairy products, if a cheese is made of unpasteurized milk, it has to be aged for at least 60 days.

But real brie is made of unpasteurized milk, and it’s aged for just a few weeks. (At 60 days aged, you wouldn’t want it. It’ll have the distinct and powerful aroma and flavor of ammonia, except you can’t wash the floor with it. Don’t bother trying to trim it — just throw it away.)

So, for export to the United States, France makes pasteurized brie.

The difference in flavor between raw milk brie and pasteurized brie is remarkable. Whereas the brie we get in this country pretty much just tastes like cultured butter, The Real Thing is complex, eggy, more pungent than you’d expect, and has strong notes of dirt-floor basement and a damp field of mushrooms on the forest floor after weeks of rain. These are actually desirable traits.

The other problem with export brie is that nearly all of the major brands you find in the grocery stores are made in big factories, not in quaint little rural huts. And big companies tend to standardize and streamline production, so the brie you find in the grocery store — and sometimes even in the specialty shops — has stabilizers added to the curds, which is not a good thing if you actually like to eat cheese.

Stabilizers slow down the ripening process to satisfy the vagaries of the food distribution system, which isn’t designed to handle delicate cheeses. Much in the same way tomatoes are picked too young, so they (supposedly) ripen on the customer’s counter and not in the warehouse (but all we ever end up with are pink rocks), such brie is altered so it will not ripen too soon.

But the sad fact is, brie with stabilizers never properly ripens, so it will never ooze seductively across a plate the way natural, unadulterated brie will.

If you are experiencing brie withdrawal symptoms and you must have some, there are a few brands that come somewhat close to what you can get in France and will actually give you a decent bang for your buck.

One is Brie de Nangis. Whereas we usually find brie in 2- or 3-kilo wheels, Brie de Nangis comes in 1-kilo wheels (about 2.2 pounds), so look for a smaller wheel in your cheesemonger’s case.

Fromage de Meaux is another option for you but, usually by the time it’s fully ripened, it starts getting too close to the ammonia threshold. In this country, many retailers sell Fromage de Meaux as “Brie de Meaux,” but this is misleading and incorrect.

True Brie de Meaux is an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) cheese, which means its recipe is carefully controlled by the French government, and true Brie de Meaux is made of unpasteurized milk. Were the United States part of the European Union, retailers calling Fromage de Meaux “Brie de Meaux” would be quickly corrected.

So, when you see “Brie de Meaux” in the United States, don’t get too excited, thinking someone has smuggled wheels of raw-milk brie into the country. They haven’t.

Really, you’ll have the best results if you choose a bloomy-rind cheese that’s not called “brie.” Sadly, most camembert we get from France falls into the same sad export trap, but Isigny Saint-Mère’s camembert is decent; just make sure you get the one with the “AOC” on the label, as not all of Isigny’s rounds have it.

Other interesting French bloomy-rind cheeses are Fougerus (look for the fern sprig on top), Coulommiers, and the crazy triple-crèmes like Délice de Bourgogne, Gratte-Paille, and Brillat-Savarin.

Again, they’ll be pasteurized and not as nuanced as what you’d get in France, but they are far more interesting than cardboard-y brie.

The Italian Piedmonts produce some gorgeous cheeses in this category, such as any of the Robiola cheeses, Cravanzina, La Tur, and Rocchetta. If you see anything by Gianni Cora, Guffanti or Caseificio Dell’Alta Langa, you’re going to get a gorgeous cheese.

My best suggestion is to cut out the list of Vermont bloomy-rind cheeses (see main column text) and carry it in your wallet.

Use it like a checklist: try every single one!

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Originally published in The Commons issue #155 (Wednesday, June 6, 2012).

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