Dear cheese makers, you have been very patient while we’ve harvested and pruned our way through autumn and winter. So this week we are talking cheese and comparing the two classic white mold, surface ripened, cheeses of France. The names Camembert and Brie need no introduction, but anyone who tells you the only difference between them is size is sorely mistaken.
Perhaps in the supermarket, where marketing often overrides authenticity, the distinct origins and differences are lost. But if you are fortunate enough to meet the real version of these two great cheeses in person, you will understand they are like well … chalk and cheese.
An appreciation of their differences will aid your enjoyment, both as a cheese maker and a cheese eater.
Brie originated hundreds of years before camembert. Records note King Charlemagne enjoyed Brie at a Monastery in Reuil-de-Brie over 1200 years ago. Camembert is a comparative newcomer, created by Marie Harel, a farmer in Normandy, just over 200 years ago. The story goes that a passing Monk from Brie shared the surface mould secret for protecting and ripening cheeses, and that Harel applied this to the cheeses already made at the farm.
They have both gone on to earn their place at tables of Kings and nobles and Camembert was even issued to the French Military during wartime as a standard ration.
Separated by geography, Brie hails from the Seine et Marne region in the province of Île-de-France, (just 30 miles east of Paris), whereas Camembert hails, unsurprisingly, from the town of Camembert in lower Normandy, (same latitude but well to the west of Paris). Both definitely northern French cheeses, but from very different terroir.
Even within these two regions there are variations such as the Camembert from the salt marsh pastures of Isigny Ste Mere or the pungent, firm, aged “black brie” made from Brie de Melun.
Camembert are dainty little wheels of cheese measuring 11cm (4.3 inches) across and weighing 250 grams (8.8 ounces) each. The famous Brie de Meaux is made in whopping great rounds that measure 37cm (15 inches) across and weigh 3kg (6 ½ lbs). The smaller Brie de Melun is still the equal of 6 Camembert, 27cm (10 ½ inches) across, and a weight of 1.5kg (3.3lbs).
It takes up to 30 litres (8 gallons) of milk to make a Brie and a little over 1 litre (1 quart) of milk to make a Camembert.
Traditional “Camembert de Normandie” is made from the full cream, unpasteurized milk of Normandy cattle, a recognised historic bred descended from animals introduced by the invading Norse Vikings. Normandy cattle are a dual purpose meat and milk breed that produce beef marbled with fat and a rich milk which makes excellent butter and cheeses.
The milk used for Brie is also unpasteurized but is more austere, sometimes even skimmed, and displays the character of the gravel, river pastures in the surrounding region. These characteristics come through in the finished cheese.
Camembert has a minimum fat content of 45 grams (1 ½ ounces) per 100 grams (3 ½ ounces) of cheese compared to the leaner Brie which has only 28 grams (1 ounce) of fat per 100 grams (3 ½ ounces) of cheese. Brie has less fat than Cheddar if you worry about that sort of thing.
Traditional recipes are closely guarded secrets but Brie is cultured for a much longer period and coagulated with animal rennet. The curds are cut vertically and then scooped horizontally into hoops with a large flat shovel known as “pelle à Brie”.
Camembert is cultured for a shorter duration, renneted and the curds are cut into 1cm (1/2 inch) cubes, worked lightly, rested and ladled into 11cm hoops. Both cheeses are flipped frequently in the hoops to remove whey during the first 48 hours.
The bacteria responsible for the bloomy white surface are sprayed on to the cheeses at this point after being removed from the hoops. Either Pencillium candidum or Penicillium camemberti together with Geotrichum candidum are the usual suspects but some of the honkingly smelly French Brie have a smearing of Brevibacterium linens bacteria added in for good measure. This is the bacteria responsible for foot odour (really).
The cheeses are then dry salted with between 3-5% of their weight of salt and either dried for a couple of days (Brie) or sent straight to the maturing rooms.
Because of its larger size, Brie ripens slowly over a period of up to 2 months. It is turned twice a week and matured on traditional woven reed mats that give the rind of true Brie its characteristic uneven, interlaced stripes.
Camembert matures within 3 weeks on wire racks and is turned daily. Both cheeses are kept in high humidity (95%), low temperature (12C /54F) maturation rooms to encourage the growth of the white mould surface.
Brie is best when the centre still has a slight firmness and chalkiness to it. Over-ripe Brie and Camembert are completely runny to the centre, not unctuous oozing, but liquid, with very strong ammonia flavours that some connoisseurs enjoy.
As well as knowing the age of the cheese, ripeness can be assessed by touch. Even through a paper wrapping you can tell, if the cheese is very firm to the touch it is unripe, if it gives slightly to pressure it is ripening and if it is very loose it may be over-ripe.
Camembert are generally sold whole, in their skin. Because of their size Brie are cut into cake like wedges, which are wrapped for individual sale. Once cut, Brie will not continue to ripen from the rind inwards. Ensure Brie is properly ripened if you are buying it ready cut.
In 1890, round wooden boxes were invented to preserve Camembert from damage during transportation and sale. Traditional Camembert is still sold in these boxes today and the vintage circular labels have become quite collectible.
Flavour, Aroma and Texture
In the name of research we procured and tasted some authentic French Brie de Meaux and Camembert de Normandie. The Brie was made from raw milk and the Camembert was pasteurized, but even so, it was remarkably different than supermarket “camembert” with a little c.
The generous wedge of Brie de Meaux had a thick chalky white rind with dark straw colour showing through ridges where the cheese sat on the reed mats. The rind was a pale grey underneath and the paste was a melting pale yellow at the surface with a still slightly firm interior. The smell was intense and met you at the door. The flavour was strong and fungal, not sweet but earthy with a lingering taste of hazelnuts.
The little Camembert had a beautifully wrinkled rind from the Geotrichum candidum. The rind was noticeably thinner than the Brie and the paste was a lovely pale butter colour with a clean sweet lingering flavour, hints of flowers, cauliflower and hay. An easier eat but I personally preferred the Brie.
Tasting both of these side by side you are not going to confuse the two.
Should you eat the skin of these cheeses? Oh yes. You might feel a bit queasy about eating mold, but remember these molds are members of the penicillium genus. Their cousins create the pencillin in antibiotics so they can’t be all that nasty. The flavour and texture of the skin complements the paste and adds complexity to the overall taste – so get over yourself and eat it.
Partner these cheeses with a good glass of farmhouse cider, flute of bubbles or warming Aramangac. Serve at room temperature with crusty white french bread.
Splash out on the real deal Brie de Meaux and Camembert de Normandie and see what you make of them. But be warned ignorance is bliss and you may not be able to face your bland, firm, stabilized, uniformly white and stiff “camembert” and “brie” again. You may just have to learn how to make them yourself.