At the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15, where European borders were being redrawn after 23 years of war with Napoleonic France, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was in no position to negotiate. With Napoléon’s recent defeat, the French foreign minister wasn’t even invited to the meeting between Austria, Great Britain, Russia and Prussia.
Talleyrand found his way in, however, and brought a strategic weapon: wheels of Brie de Meaux. This bloomy-rind cow’s milk cheese has been produced in the Brie region of northern France since the 8th century. At a feast hosted by Talleyrand, where several of each country’s cheeses were presented, Brie was declared “the King of Cheeses.”
In the end, France lost no more territory than the 1814 Treaty of Paris had already determined, and Talleyrand was hailed as an exquisitely devious diplomat.
“Brie is a tremendous cheese,” says John Antonelli, who co-owns Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin, with his wife, Kendall. “I remember my first taste of Brie de Meaux very clearly. It was March of 2009, sitting on the bank of the Rhône River. I had purchased a wedge from Hervé Mons cheesemongers in the nearby market hall. The texture was incredibly smooth, and the aromas of mushroom and cauliflower were perfectly balanced.”
This isn’t the bland, buttery, mass-produced cheese that has overstayed its welcome on cheese plates. True Brie de Meaux is one of only two Bries with a protected Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the other being Brie de Melun. Since 1987, these have been unavailable in the U.S. due to a ban on raw-milk cheese aged less than 60 days.
What’s the difference between Brie and Camembert?
Camembert is another soft-ripened, bloomy-rind French cheese, first made in Normandy in 1791 when a visiting priest from Brie brought the recipe. Like Brie de Meaux, Camembert de Normandie is an appellation-designated, raw-milk Camembert unavailable in the U.S. The cheeses are similar, though Camembert is made in smaller wheels and is a bit more intense and earthy.
Since then, Brie has come to represent a general style of cheese to many U.S. consumers: soft-ripened wheels with an edible, downy-white rind. Though most commercial, pasteurized offerings bear little resemblance to the great examples of French Brie, you can find delicious options that share their subtly complex, mushroomy, vegetal, tangy and nutty flavors.
“I think there’s a misconception that all Bries are created equal,” says Kendall Antonelli. “It’s important to try as many as you can so that you find the one that pleases your palate the most.”
So, what should you look for in a great brie? Given the wide range of options, the Antonellis stress that people should touch, sniff and taste their Brie, when possible, before they buy.
“I think the sexiness of this cheese comes through in the texture that develops throughout the paste,” says John. “It should be smooth, thick and mouth filling. Touch the cheese or ask your cheesemonger to describe the texture. You want it to be firm at the rind and soft, but not runny, on the inside.”
Kendall looks beyond texture. “For me, it’s the flavor,” she says. “I want strong aromas of broccoli to hit my olfactory. Smell or taste it to get a sense for where it is in the aging process.”
Specific Brands of Brie to Look For
“[Our] go-to French brie is Brie de Nangis from Fromagerie Rouzaire,” says John. “Le Pommier makes an outstanding Brie, and Le Chatelain makes a lovely Brie for the U.S. market. But when folks come into our shop asking for a Brie, we can suggest a lot of bloomy-rind cheeses from the U.S. that fall in the same family.
“If we’re sticking to cow milk cheeses, then Blue Earth Brie from Alemar Cheese in Minnesota is a great bet. For those deep mushroomy, vegetal notes, our favorite recommendation is Harbison, a spruce-wrapped, brie-style disc from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm. I’ve also had incredible Bries from Brush Creek Creamery in Idaho. They’ve won many awards for their cheeses, and I’ve always loved them.”
Should You Eat the Cheese Rind?
“We’ve got a few sayings around the shop,” says Kendall. ” ‘Leave no rind behind!’ ‘A rind is a terrible thing to waste!’ Personally, we’re fans of the rind, especially when the rind-to-paste ratio is small. It’s awkward to cut away a rind from a small cheese. And folks are paying for that rind, too. That being said, we usually say to try it. If you enjoy it, eat it. If you don’t, kindly discard it.”
Kendall does warn to not hollow a brie on a public cheese board. Rather, she says, “cut your wedge, plate it, then discard your own piece of rind.”
John points out that the way you handle the rind can depend on your setting. “[Rinds] vary depending on the maker, handling and age,” he says. “So, I may generally love a rind, but don’t enjoy it with what I’m drinking that day. Some rinds end up thicker than they’re supposed to be. Those can be chewy and less desirable to eat.”
Brie should be served at room temperature. A lesser Brie can be baked in a puff-pastry crust or with fruit preserves on top. It can also be irresistible in a grilled-cheese sandwich. But a truly great Brie shouldn’t be heated. It will lose some of those subtle textures and flavors.
Three Brie Recipes to Try
This dessert gets a savory twist as it’s covered with pineapple syrup and served with a piece of creamy Brie.
Potato gratin is a classic go-to dish for holiday meals and comforting dinners. In this recipe, we use a mixture of Brie and Gruyère for cheesy goodness.
If you are a comfort food-lover, this wild mushroom soup is a dream come true. It gets added richness from Brie cheese and is topped with buttery pastry.
Pairing Wine with Brie
According to Ashley Broshious, beverage manager of Zero Restaurant & Bar in Charleston, South Carolina, when pairing Brie, select a wine that will help lift the fattiness of the cheese, either through acid, bubbles or tannins.
“The best styles of wine with Brie are actually complete opposites. First, I love rosé Champagne with Brie and Brie-style cheeses. The bubbles are the perfect complement, and if you get a richer style Champagne, you don’t even need any accoutrements for the cheese.”
“If you are on a budget, try a rosé or blanc de noirs Crémant de Bordeaux,” says Broshious. “Made from Merlot, Cabernet Franc and other red Bordeaux [varieties], it has the fruit and acid to balance the tangy, earthy notes in Brie and is an incredibly good value.”
“My other go-to is always a younger, plush Bordeaux,” Broshious continues. “A wine with a little oak shining through and ripe fruit is the perfect match for the creaminess of Brie.”
Brie is relatively mild, so when it’s one component of a larger dish, Broshious suggests pairing the wine with the other ingredients. “If the Brie is baked with fruit, I always pair an older Riesling with a touch of sweetness to complement the fruit,” she says. “If I’m adding Brie to a salad with crisp vegetables and tangy dressing, you can’t go wrong with a Sauvignon Blanc, especially Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.”