From the definitive way to slice a wedge of brie to why people are dunking theirs in coffee, we’ve got the lowdown on all six types of France’s most famous cheese.
The Journey: Searching for le Brie in la Brie
Le brie is a cheese, but la Brie is a region about an hour east of Paris that lends its name to the iconic cheese produced there. With great cheese calling from so close by, I lured my husband and sister-in-law into a road trip with promises of brie noir, a mythic cheese rarely seen outside the region.
One exceptionally sunny day in February, hubby and I called the dog-sitter and I packed my bag with camera, notebook, pen, and an empty bag for cheese buying, and off we went. Traffic was slow as we meandered through the congestion caused by nearby protests, but once we passed the périphérique that encircles the city, it was smooth sailing through a mix of industrial buildings and rolling farmland.
Soon after leaving Paris, one finds themselves in the Seine-et-Marne department that Brie calls home. The area was once filled with cow pastures, but today the encroaching city and the overflow from nearby Disneyland, coupled with farmers’ turn to higher-profit cereal farms, means fewer cows – and less brie.
But less brie doesn’t mean no brie, and we were determined to go straight to the source of this French staple. With questions in hand and a determination to taste anything and everything, we were three fromage fanatics on a mission.
The Basics: Six Styles of Brie
The “king of cheese and cheese of kings” was a favorite of medieval ruler Charlemagne and King Henri IV, everyone’s favorite king. (Trust me, it’s a thing.) Today, brie is known around the world. But in fact, brie is an umbrella term for six distinct cheeses, all of which are soft, made with cow’s milk, and aged with a white mold on the outside.
Back when cheese was mostly sold at village markets, brie producers found that the residents of the region’s towns had different preferences when it came to the taste of their cheese. Some villages preferred a stronger version, others mild, some liked a buttery brie and others one that was nutty, some wanted a honey flavor while others were looking for that ammonia bite, some… well, you get the idea.
Thus was born a veritable brie dialect that includes Brie de Melun, Brie de Meaux, brie de Provins, brie de Nangis, brie de Montereau, and Coulommiers, each with its own intonations of taste produced by distinct aging periods and sizes of the cheese.
Undoubtedly, the two most famous of these beauties are Brie de Melun and Brie de Meaux. They are the only two that are protected by the AOP, which states that they must be made exclusively with raw milk, and which is why these two get a big ol’ capital-letter ‘B.’
That explains why the biggest sight in Meaux – besides an impressively grand cathedral with a garden designed by the same guy who did the gardens at Versailles – is La Maison du Brie (The House of Brie), a museum dedicated to the cheese’s history and production.
The Museum: Brie History & Brie Hats
As we reached Meaux, we pulled off the highway into an industrial area that suddenly gave way to a charming town center, where speakers played music over the cobblestone streets around the cathedral.
We headed straight to the small cheese lovers’ museum, and there, among the bucolic dioramas and piped-in cow sounds, I found what I’d heard so much about but never seen: the famous brie hats, worn by the Brotherhood of Brie, the most fashionable (if least diverse) cheese group I ever did see.
But we had more important things to see than hats, so we continued another half hour east to Fromagerie Ganot, the oldest brie affineurs (agers) in the region.
The Visit: Fromagerie Ganot
Established in 1895, Fromagerie Ganot is owned by sister-and-brother team Isabelle and Stéphane Hédin. Their mother was a saleswoman for the original owner, before buying up the whole operation herself.
Fromagerie Ganot is a cheese-ager, not a producer, who works with Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun, and Coulommiers. That means that the team purchases two-day old milk from nearby farms, and they age those cheeses anywhere from six weeks to two years in man-made stone cellars.
Like most quality fromagers in France, the Hédin family sources only raw-milk cheeses. Isabelle is emphatic that only these will “taste of the terroir.” That is to say, only raw milk, with its living organisms, will yield the full flavors of the cheese and the land it comes from.
Humidity levels and temperatures are closely monitored in the caves, as even the smallest change makes a big difference. Organic and non-organic cheeses are kept separate, as required by French law, and hygiene is strictly controlled, with booties and hair coverings required before entering either of the fromagerie’s two caves.
The decisions the affineur makes in these caves will determine the flavors and textures of their cheeses. The Hédin team spends its time salting cheeses, flipping them, and moving them between different shelves for maximal aeration. And, as we’re about to learn, for maximal flavor.
The Celebrities: Coulommiers, Brie de Meaux, and Brie de Melun
After the tour, we moved outside to taste Isabelle’s cheeses in a small area decorated with antique farming equipment. First up, Coulommiers, a small brie aged three to four weeks that in Paris is known to be rather mild.
Imagine our surprise when we bit into a voluptuous, rustic masterpiece that tasted of honey and hay. But how? we asked, with brie still melting in our mouths. How could this Coulommiers be so much more flavorful than any we’d ever had? The answer was simple: organic milk.
Next, it was onto the superstars. Brie de Meaux, with its 6 weeks of affinage (aging), is high on creaminess and low on funk. Isabelle describes the taste as that of “hazelnut butter,” and as I closed my eyes for a second bite, its rich, toasty flavors wrapped around me like a warm blanket to protect from the evening chill.
Excuse me while I close my eyes again and remember that moment.
Okay, moving on.
According to Isabelle, the butter-like Brie de Meaux pairs best with the crisp bubbles of a dry Champagne, which will cut through the cream and accentuate the cheese’s nutty nature. At a recent VIP tasting, we found that it pairs nearly as well with Italy’s Franciacorta, a sparkling made in the méthode traditionnelle that’s a friendly option for the budget-conscious.
After Brie de Meaux comes her big, bad sister, Brie de Melun. This thicker brie can be aged 10-12 weeks, according to AOP rules, but Isabelle doesn’t shy away from the intense flavors brought by longer aging, and lets hers sit the full three months.
Before we see the cheese, we smell its sharp ammonia scent wafting towards us. In Paris, Brie de Melun is known to be stronger than Brie de Meaux, but there’s nothing in the capital that compares to what we found here.
“It’ll make you cry,” Isabelle tells us. (Actually, she says, “C’est le larme,” but, “It’s the tear” doesn’t quite work in English.)
“This one you serve with a red Burgundy wine. It can stand up to a big red like that,” Isabelle explains. “When you go to [Michelin-starred Paris restaurant] La Tour d’Argent, they’ll give you brie de Melun with a red Burgundy,” though during our tasting she serves a red Bordeaux that is an equally fine match for the cheese’s intensity.
The Mythical Beast: Black Brie
As we finish our wine, Isabelle emerges holding a dark brown wheel. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.
Black brie, the unicorn of French cheeses, has finally shown herself. She is dense and thin, having lost most of her moisture over two years of aging.
When we cut into her, she reveals a dense, off-white center surrounded by a crumbly, almost dusty, brown exterior. What we’re looking at are the “artisons,” microscopic cheese mites who feed on the moldy rind, hardening its exterior and bringing out the cheese’s earthy flavors.
Isabelle taps the cheese on the table, allowing some of the mites and their debris to fall away. She slices the tiniest of slivers and cuts away the rind. Unlike with other types of cheese, you eat only the white interior of brie noir.
When I take my first bite, I am surprised to find that there is no detectable ammonia taste, which can happen when mold-ripened cheeses are aged a long time. Isabelle explains that after a year or so, the ammonia flavors give way to the cheese’s pungent earthiness. The flavor is filled with the aromas of mushrooms and wet leaves, like when you take a deep breath in a damp forest. It’s what the French call sous-bois – the forest undergrowth.
With such an intense flavor and texture, brie noir is meant to be eaten in small quantities. Amongst those in the region, it’s typical to eat this for breakfast, dipped in coffee, though here at VIP we think it pairs mighty fine with a sweet wine, too.
The Answers: Brie FAQs
Don’t think I let Isabelle go before asking her the questions I know the VIP club is dying to know. Here are her (and my) answers to questions from readers and VIP tour clients.
Do you eat the rind?
Yes, with the exception of brie noir. Most cheese rinds are edible. They’re simply cheese that’s been exposed to air longer, like the crust on bread. Because brie gets its flavor from the mold that resides on the rind, this is the most flavorful part. It’s also the most nutritional. The salt that is rubbed on the outside of the cheese during aging pulls the calcium up to the rind.
How do I slice a wedge?
Cutting brie isn’t really about what you do, but rather what you don’t do. The first rule is to never, ever cut the tip off the wedge parallel to the rind. That’s known as “cutting off the nose.”
“You can cut however you want, as long as there’s always a point,” Isabelle explains. If you’re not sure what she means, long, vertical slices are always a safe bet.
Some say it’s because the edge and the center of the cheese have different flavors, so you want to spread the love equally. Others say it’s because in Brie of yore, a father cut the nose off the brie when he refused a suitor his daughter’s hand in marriage. Either way, it’s frowned upon.
Rule number two, says Isabelle: “Never cut along the back edge.” That leaves someone with only rind and no creamy interior.
How long can I store Brie?
Two weeks for “normal” brie, and “basically forever” for brie noir or brie sec.
What should I serve with Brie?
Americans love serving cheese with all sorts of jams, nuts, honey, and other accoutrements, but all that fuss is less popular in France. When I ask Isabelle what she serves with her brie, the answer is simple: “Du pain. Du vin. Du fromage.”
“Bread. Wine. Cheese.”
After a pause, she adds dark cherry confiture to the list, of which she sells a Basque variety in her shop.
“And people have started serving Brie with dark chocolate,” she tells us, combining two of my favorite words into one brie-autiful sentence. (You didn’t really think I could get through this whole post without a brie pun, did you?)
As to building a cheese plate around brie, Isabelle recommends a hard cheese, like a tomme, and a goat cheese.
“For me, a cheese plate needs to be at least three cheeses. After that, you can add a washed-rind, like époisses, and a bleu.”
And what about baked brie? “You can put brie in the oven for a minute or two,” Isabelle suggests with a shrug.
Touring Fromagerie Ganot
At VIP, we’re already planning our next visit to Jouarre in search of Fromagerie Ganot’s seasonal specialties: Brie with pistachios, truffle Brie, and Coulommiers washed in prune liqueur.
If you’re interested in visiting Isabelle and her team, you can join one of their French-language tours on Saturdays at 4:30 PM.
English-speakers can book a tour by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
In either case, advance reservations are a must.