BRATTLEBORO—Pretty much everyone knows about brie: spongy, ivory-colored cheese that starts to ooze if left out on the counter for too long, covered with this bright-white, cottony sort of stuff that is maybe edible (or at least you hope it’s edible, since you’re the one who usually eats it). People like it for parties.
But do you really know brie?
Do you know that, within its specific category — the bloomy-rind cheeses — there are much better cheeses than brie, especially considering the money you’re spending on that cheese?
Yes, cheeses with better and more nuanced flavors, that ripen properly, and that might be made down the road from where you live are available at better cheese shops everywhere. (For more information on why brie isn’t a great choice, see sidebar.)
So, how can you identify these bloomy-rind cheeses, especially among the hundreds of varieties staring at you from the confines of the cheese counter?
It’s easy! Look for a cheese that looks like a flat, white, perfectly round cloud. Look for that cottony, velvety white rind.
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Bloomy-rind is one of two categories comprising the category called soft-ripened cheeses (the other is washed-rind, also known as smear-ripened), so named because they, unlike nearly every other cheese, aren’t meant to firm up as they age.
Soft-ripened cheeses are usually much smaller than other cheeses and they have a softer texture throughout their natural life.
When one of these cheeses is young, its core might be flaky or chalky, getting softer and almost liquid as time progresses. The skin (rind) surrounding the paste is edible but might be somewhat leathery.
There’s no rule saying you must eat the rind, and some people find its flavor too strong and the texture unpleasant. Expect the rind to be much earthier than the paste.
This category of cheeses has a very specific aroma: damp, musty, dirt-floor basement, with an odd sort of astringent undertone and the faintest hint of ammonia.
(When I say “faint hint of ammonia,” I mean it. If the smell of ammonia hits you in the face like a ton of bricks, leave the cheese unwrapped on the counter for twenty minutes. Then go back and try a taste. If it tastes like ammonia, I’m sorry, but the cheese is overripe, and you’ll have to throw it away. You can’t trim away that horrible flavor.)
The flavor of bloomy-rind cheeses will vary depending on which animal’s, or animals’, milk is being used, what the animals are eating, the time of year the cheese is being made, the terroir (the specific characteristics of the geography where the animals graze and the cheese is made, such as ocean-side, high pastures, and scrubby hills), and the skill of the cheesemaker.
That said, some flavors will be consistent across this category of cheese because of the way the cheese is made.
Expect flavors of fresh cream, damp dirt-floor basement, white button mushrooms, a little salt, a teensy hint of metal (especially in the rind) and, if the cheese is very ripe, perfectly cooked scrambled eggs.
And, yes, that slight hint of ammonia when the cheese is very ripe.
While these cheeses aren’t bad when young and the paste is chalky, the best time to eat them is when they yield to a gentle squeeze, just as a pear does.
Take the cheese out of refrigeration and set it on the counter, out of direct sunlight, for about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how cold your room is. Watch as the paste seems to turn from a solid to almost a liquid.
That’s when the volatile organic aromatic compounds are released from the confines of the butterfat. Or, in plain English: this is the point when the cheese is the most delicious.
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So how does it all work, anyway? Why do these cheeses have this funny rind and other cheeses don’t? What’s the rind made of? How come these cheeses get softer as they age and not firmer? Where did these cheeses originate, and why did anyone bother to make them this way?
Making cheese is an art and a science. There’s a whole universe happening in the cheese vat, and it continues on until you’ve digested it.
Cheese is alive! And for the bloomy-rind cheeses, so much of the magic has to do with the rind.
Two main strains of mold are used to develop the rind: Penicillium candidum and Geotrichum candidum. The latter is classified as a mold, but it sometimes behaves like a yeast. (For those of you who are allergic to the penicillin that’s used for medical purposes, it’s likely you will have no sensitivity to P. candidum, as it’s a different strain, but check with your doctor first.)
Not only do these two molds flourish and make a skin thick enough to protect the delicate paste beneath, but they also change the chemistry of the cheese to allow it to properly ripen and taste good.
In turn, the specific environment in the cheese itself — the moisture and salt content — as well as in the aging room allow for the proliferation of the white mold to grow on the surface of the cheese.
It’s a happy cycle: the moldy rind allows the paste to develop, and the paste promotes the growth of the mold on the rind. Symbiosis at work!
A cheese becomes firm when the whey drains, leaving the solids — the hard part — to comprise the body. More moisture, softer cheese. Less moisture, harder cheese.
Because the rind develops quickly on bloomy-rind cheeses, especially as compared to other categories, and because the rind prevents the whey from draining from the curds, these cheeses stay soft as they ripen.
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This category of cheese, like nearly all others, developed as a result of necessity, in the northern plains of France. Brie’s provenance is Île-de-France, and Normandy is the birthplace of brie’s smaller, slightly stronger cousin, camembert.
In the northern French rural lands, peasants maintained individual small farms with only one or two cows each, and brought their cheeses to sell in the nearby villages.
Because the cheeses didn’t need to travel far — as they would have had to, say, in the Alps, where hard cheeses were the only ones to survive a long journey to market — northern France’s farm-folk could make, transport, and sell soft cheeses without incurring damage to the delicate wheels.
Soft cheeses also gave the farmers a better return on their labor because less whey-drainage meant less waste down the drain. And because the cheese didn’t age for but a few weeks, the time from production to sale was shorter than that for an aged cheese.
Also, because each farm had only a few cows, the cheesemakers needed to develop cheeses that were small because there simply wasn’t enough milk to make them larger.
Today, greater distribution channels, refrigeration, and better packaging make it easier for a modern cheesemaker to maintain the sanctity of the delicate cheeses, but economy — the prospect of less waste or a faster turnaround from production to sale — surely influences a cheesemaker’s decision to produce bloomy-rind cheeses.
Plus, people just seem to like them.
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While there are notable bloomy-rind cheeses being made all over the world, we’re lucky enough in Vermont to have some spectacular local specimens.
I have a highly biased, short list for you, but as always, it’s best to scour your local farmers’ market or cheese shop. New cheesemakers seem to be popping up like mushrooms these days, so get out there and eat as much as you can.
Vermont-made bloomy-rind cheeses I particularly like:
• Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury: Camembrie (cow), Crottina (goat), Lake’s Edge (goat).
• Champlain Valley Creamery in Vergennes: Triple-Cream (cow).
• Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro: Constant Bliss (cow), Moses Sleeper (cow).
• Lazy Lady Farm in Westfield: Capriola (goat), La Petite Tomme (goat), Oh My Heart (cow).
• Willow Hill Farm in Milton: Alderbrook (sheep), La Fleurie (cow), Vermont Brebis (sheep).
• Woodcock Farm in Weston: Summer Snow (sheep).