Louis XVI, awaiting his beheading in the tower of the Paris Temple, understanding that his end was imminent, and knowing that his unmaking would bring joy to the many thousands of his liberated subjects, made one final request before being led to his gruesome death: a bit of Brie.
Or something like that. In any event, he liked Brie a lot. Why people think this is a bit unclear to me (unless Louis’s Temple guard published his memoirs – unlikely – I’m not certain how we’d verify this), but that’s what everyone seems to say. Charlemagne liked Brie, too. Apparently, the Carolingian conqueror liked it so much that he demanded two cartloads be delivered to his mansion in Aachen each year. Talleyrand, a French diplomat and one of the world’s most successful assholes (betraying, in order, the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Restoration), declared Brie le roi des fromages at the Congress of Vienna (where, apparently, there was nothing better to talk about). ‘The King of Cheeses’, you say? Yeah, I’ll have some.
Brie de Meaux was given name-protected status in 1980 and is now produced exclusively in the French town of (French speakers, don’t ruin the surprise!) Meaux. It takes about six-and-a-half gallons of raw cow’s milk to produce one wheel of this Brie of Bries. The wheels are quite large; they vary in size, but typically spread about fourteen-and-a-half inches in diameter, for a circumference of (mathematicians, don’t ruin the surprise!) I don’t know. The milk is left for sixteen hours before being placed in a bowl for curding. After an hour, the curds are removed and molded with a ‘brie shovel’, which turned up no search results. The curds are then heated and cooled at varying degrees over the following day until they are drained under their own weight. The cheese is then salted and left in a curing room for two days before being ripened for up to six weeks.
Gordon Edgar writes of the first time he saw a real Brie de Meaux:
‘I thought it was bad. Instead of being pristine and generic, it looked like it had been forgotten on the floor of the cooler. The shape wasn’t exactly a circle; there were yellow and brown molds, and red pustules looking like they wanted to burst. But one taste – and I don’t mind admitting I cut off the rind that time – and I realized why Brie had a reputation, that it could have pungency, earthiness, and deep, complex flavors along with being rich and creamy. It didn’t have to be, at best, butter with a rind.’
I was thrilled to discover that St. James had a few wheels in stock. I took home three-quarters of a pound and let it sit for about and hour-and-a-half before feeling it was ready to eat. Upon reflection, the Brie didn’t look anything like Edgar’s description. To begin with, it looked, well, nice. The rind was white and bloomy, as one would expect, and there were no bursting pustules in sight. It hardly looked forgotten at all. In fact, if we’re on the point, it looked rather well-remembered. While these characteristics would typically be attractive in a cheese, in this case I should have taken their absence as a warning that something was amiss.
The cheese tasted just fine. Good, even. Transcendent? Not really. There was a pleasant creamy texture and a nice balance of butter and tang on the palate, but none of ‘earthiness’ and ‘deep complexity’ that Edgar experienced. I did a bit of research and found out that what I had in my kitchen was not, in fact, Brie de Meaux. Unless I brought a wheel with me from France, I would never have Brie de Meaux in my kitchen. Brie de Meaux is illegal in the United States.
Looking over the math, one can see straight away that real Brie de Meaux would never be found in an American cheese shop, because the name-controlled, raw-milk cheese is only ripened for six weeks – two weeks short of the 60-day aging requirement for raw imports. What I had eaten was, in fact, Fromage de Meaux, a pasteurized, US-legal version of Brie de Meaux made by the same folks. It is still handmade. It is still good. But it’s not the real thing.
The Fromage de Meaux was delicious, to be sure, but dispiriting in its predictability. It would have gone nicely with some fig preserves (what wouldn’t, really?), or any number of sweet jams. There is a creamy coolness to good Brie that always makes it a lovely picnic cheese. It is certainly true that Fromage de Meaux is nearly as good as one can do in this country, and for that alone it warrants a recommendation. However, don’t expect a revelation. Perhaps the most discouraging characteristic of this cheese was its lack of surprise. I am told that raw milk cheeses are dependably better, more complex, and more inspiring than their pasteurized equivalents, and I can only assume that the same is true in this case. I doubt that there is any memoir in print that contains a detailed passage of the author’s first experience with Fromage de Meaux.
I have to say, I find it a bit disappointing that a serious cheese shop like St. James would make such a blatant oversight. Sure, Fromage de Meaux is as close as we’ll get, and I can understand the temptation of just rounding it up a bit, but the pasteurized version is simply not Brie de Meaux. Apparently, many cheese shops in the States make this nominal simplification. However, do not be fooled. If you are eating Brie de Meaux in the United States, you are not eating Brie de Meaux.
Fromage de Meaux (Rouzaire)
Made with pasteurized cow’s milk and traditional rennet (sorry, vegetarians).