Brie is a creamy cow’s milk cheese named for the region in north-central France where it was first created. The cheese typically comes in a wheel, or round, and is protected by a thick, white rind. While the rind is edible, most cheese connoisseurs are more interested in the creamy center. The cheese will hold its shape if cut into wedges or slices, but is easily spreadable. Its neutral flavor makes it an excellent complement to fruits, nuts, and any number of different sweet or savory foods.
Early Popularity and History
According to legend, brie first became famous when it was declared “a delicacy” by France’s Emperor Charlemagne, who reigned from 768 to 814. Nearly a hundred years later, it was crowned “the King of Cheeses” at a European cheese-making competition at the Congress of Vienna. These accolades are mostly owing to the cheese’s uniformly creamy texture, its rich taste, and its smooth, even flavor.
Modern Production in France
Bries are made throughout the world today, but France remains the top producer. The most traditional French iterations are made with unpasteurized, or raw, cow’s milk. Most countries have restrictions on the importation of unpasteurized dairy products, however, largely for safety reasons.
Raw milk has what many call an unparalleled creamy flavor, but it also presents a higher risk for contamination. Bries destined for export — and many of those designed for commercial sale in markets throughout France — are made with pasteurized milk. Pasteurized cheeses have a very similar taste to those made with raw milk, but usually travel better and have a longer shelf life.
Protected Origin Certification
The term “brie” is considered a generic name for any sort of cheese made in the brie style. There are two exceptions to this rule, though. The names Brie-de-Meux and Brie-de-Melun are covered by what is known as a “protected origin certification,” and can only be used on cheeses made in the Meux and Meuln regions of France. This sort of protection is given to foods and drinks that embody certain regional specifications.
Cheeses made in Meux and Melun are not necessarily all that different from those made elsewhere in France or in other parts of the world, but they are regarded by many as the most authentic. Cheese lovers looking for a “true” or “original” experience often seek out products with origin certification.
How it is Made
Making brie is something of a complex endeavor, and usually spans multiple days. The basic ingredients are cow’s milk, some form of culture or starter, and rennet. Rennet is an enzyme found in young goat or calf stomachs, but synthetic versions are available in many places. Most of the time, it is the proportion of cultures and rennet to milk that determines the sort of cheese that will result.
Heating the milk is the first step, after which the cultures and rennet are added. Once everything has been absorbed, the milk is removed from the heat and left to cool until is “sets” — that is, until it becomes almost solidified, usually with the texture of a custard or thick yogurt.
Cheese makers then pour that solid into molds, which are pressed and strained over several days. Straining removes excess moisture, and ultimately improves the density and flavor of the cheese.
The rind forms when the molds are removed and the cheese is salted and set out to dry. Traditionally, this drying happened in caves in northern France. Today's global demand, as well as health and safety concerns, make cave drying less realistic today. Most modern manufacturers use temperature-controlled rooms or drying machines.
Brie is a versatile cheese that can be served either chilled, at room temperature, or warm. Baked brie is a very common appetizer, particularly when paired with bread or some form of fruit. The cheese is often eaten on its own, usually as an appetizer or on a dessert cheese plate, but can also be incorporated into pastas or baked dishes, particularly those featuring poultry.