Let's talk about cheese. Specifically the two classic, white mould, surface-ripened cheeses of France; Camembert and Brie. You've probably enjoyed them both, but you could be forgiven for thinking that the only difference in those sometimes identically sized paper-wrapped rounds, is the name.
Like so many products that gain popularity enough to be sold en masse, the marketing often overrides authenticity, and the distinct origins and differences are lost to production streamlining. That doesn't mean you can't pick up a perfectly good version of either cheese at the supermarket, but with some knowledge up your sleeve you might be tempted to hunt down (or make) a legitimate version of both, and when introduced to your palate side by side, you will understand they are as alike as, well, chalk and cheese.
An appreciation of their differences will aid your enjoyment, both as a cheesemaker 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 cheese, and that Harel applied this to the those she was already making 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.
They are also 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 definitively northern French cheese, 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.
Although most supermarket versions of Brie and Camembert are the same size, are wrapped identically and weigh around 125g. True Camembert is traditionally made in dainty little wheels measuring 11cm across and weighing 250 grams each, whereas the famous Brie de Meaux is made in whopping great rounds that measure 37cm in diameter and weigh 3kg. The smaller Brie de Melun is still the equal of 6 Camembert at 27cm diameter, weighing in at 1.5kg.
Camembert is generally sold whole, in their skin. Because of their size, Brie is cut into cake-like wedges that 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 collectable.
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 breed descended from animals introduced by the invading Norse Vikings. Clever Normandy cattle are a dual-purpose meat and milk breed that produces beef marbled with fat and 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 per 100 grams of cheese compared to the leaner Brie which has only 28 grams of fat per 100 grams of cheese. If that sounds like a lot, Brie has less fat than a tasty 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 cubes, worked lightly, rested and ladled into 11cm hoops. Both kinds of cheese 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 Penicillium Candidum or Penicillium Camemberti together with Geotrichum Candidum are the usual suspects but some of the super smelly French Bries have a smear of Brevibacterium Linen's bacteria added in for good measure. This is the bacteria responsible for foot odour - I kid you not.
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 for 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 kinds of cheese 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.
If the age of the cheese is unknown, ripeness can be assessed by touch. Give that paper wrapped round a gentle squeeze. If the cheese is very firm to the touch it is unripe. If it gives slightly to pressure it is ripening, and if feels very loose, it may be over-ripe.
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 preferred the Brie.
Tasting both of these side by side, there is not a chance you're going to confuse the two.
Now to the age-old question - "Should you eat the skin of these cheeses?" Yes! Oh yes. You might feel a bit queasy about eating mould, but remember these moulds are members of the Penicillium genus. Their cousins create the penicillin in antibiotics. The flavour and texture of the skin complement the paste and adds complexity to the overall taste - so get over yourself and get stuck in.
Partner these cheeses with a good glass of farmhouse cider, a flute of bubbles or a warming Armagnac. Always bring them to room temperature before serving 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 "camembert" or "brie" again. You may just have to learn how to make them yourself.