Camembert versus brie – it’s le war
Along with bicycle-riding onion sellers, stripy jumpers and surrendering in the war, few things say “French” like a mould covered round of creamy camembert. It is considered a real symbol of Gallic culture.
Interestingly though, unlike brie, which has a recorded history of well over a thousand years and may well have been produced for twice that long, camembert has only been produced since the late 18th century, when a priest from Brie (an areas south-east of Paris) was traveling through Normandy, hundreds of miles to the west, and showed the recipe to a local farmer there.
It is thought that it was the farmer’s daughter who came up with the first camembert joke, which was “What’s the best cheese to encourage a bear to come to you? Camembert (come on bear).”
So incensed was he by this appalling quasi-pun that he immediately threatened to disinherit the poor girl. However she made amends by coming up with the marginally less rubbish: “I work as a cheesemonger but I’m thinking of giving it up. The hours are dreadful and I camembert it any longer” (I cannot bear it any longer). He reluctantly forgave her, although their relationship never fully recovered.
The source of the man’s anger wasn’t really his daughter’s terrible punning (which was actually quite impressive seeing as English wasn’t even her first language). It was more that there were so much better jokes about brie. For example: “Did you hear about the giant explosion in the French cheese factory? All that was left was de brie (all that was left was debris).” And: “What’s a cheese’s favourite kind of music? R’n’Brie (R’n’B).
This rivalry between brie and camembert has continued down the centuries, and is about more than just terrible cracker jokes: it is about which cheese best represents the very “essence” of France. Camembert scored something of a symbolic victory in World War One, when camembert was issued to French troops as part of their essential rations. However this really wasn’t because camembert was “more French”, but just that the individual wooden boxes that it came in (see below) made it easier to transport to the front, and easier to ration.
Despite this friendly rivalry, to many people outside France, brie and camembert are much the same thing, and many people in this country wrongly consider the two to be interchangeable. In fact, there are a number of important differences:
Brie was traditionally made from cows grazing on land near to stony riverbeds, whereas camembert’s cows graze near to the coast in lush pastures. This, and the fact they are different breeds, leads to a different tasting milk that matures differently.
During production, extra cream is added to the milk making brie, but this is not the case with camembert. This means brie has a higher fat content and creamier taste.
Brie uses less strong lactic culture starters, and they are introduced to the rind only once, in contrast to camembert where a stronger lactic starter is inoculated into the cheese several times, leading to a notably stronger, sharper taste.
Brie is made in large rounds, and when it is sold wedges are cut from these. Camembert’s on the other hand are made in smaller individual portions, each one completely encased in mould. There is therefore a different cheese/mould ratio, which obviously affects the texture.
Because of the way it is made in individual portions, camembert can be boxed up in those famous wooden boxes, making it easier to transport. These boxes were actually invented for this purpose by a French engineer called Monsieur Ridel, in 1890. With the aid of these boxes, camembert was shipped all over the world, and thus became quite popular in places like the US, that brie did not reach so easily. Plus as we earlier in this article, these wooden boxes made it more suitable for troops’ rations during WWI.
Camembert tends to have a more yellow interior, whereas that of brie can be nearly completely white. Camembert’s interior also tends to be a bit runnier – although both cheeses, when left out of the fridge, will become softer and stronger tasting, as well as darker in colour. People who like a stronger cheese often do this deliberately, putting it back in the fridge as soon as it reaches their preferred flavour. It’s important to get this right though – leave it out for the right amount of time and it becomes wonderfully smooth and flavoursome. But leave it for much too long, and it will become overripe, sharp, and eventually virtually inedible, as the bacteria eventually start producing a strong ammonia scent and taste. Some bries sold in the US have an artificially stabilised centre, meaning that however long you leave them out for, they never become runny. Americans don’t really “get” cheese.
Brie has a mild, almost buttery flavour. Camembert is a lot more punchy, with sharp, earthy flavours and a stronger umami kick.
Although I generally prefer stronger cheeses (and stronger flavours in general), in the case of these two I personally favour brie. Its mild creaminess is a real asset, particularly when paired with slightly sweet, slightly tart foods such as apple slices or cranberry sauce. The brie is best when left out of the fridge for a few hours so as so soften slightly and develop that lovely mellow flavour, but not so long as to become runny. Camembert on the other hand, while certainly not a bad cheese, tends to dominate other flavours, so really doesn’t work so well with fruit and preserves – although it works quite well on its own, say with some crackers.
Production of camembert is fairly similar to that of other soft cheeses. Unpasteurised milk produces the tastiest cheese, although due to ridiculous health and safety regulations it is not always easily available in our supermarkets. Whatever the milk, it is gently heated with a starter culture of bacteria to get the fermentation process going. The rennet is added. Rennet is a substance found in the stomach lining of various animals, such as sheep and cows, that allows them to digest their mother’s milk. Adding it to cow’s milk it has the effect of making it coagulate – that is, the curds clump together leaving the whey, which can be drained away.
At this point the curds are transferred to cylindrical moulds, where the rest of the whey drains away. This takes about two days, with the moulds being turned every few hours to keep the whey draining in an even manner. Once this has happened you are left with dry, crumbly curds. These are then packed into the familiar round shape and sprayed with another, different bacteria culture. The cheese is then left for at least three weeks to ripen, during which time the distinctive white rind develops, and the cheese is then ready to sell, although sometimes it can be aged for longer for a stronger taste.
Interestingly the familiar white rind of today’s bries and camemberts is a relatively modern innovation. When the whole process of bacteria and fermentation was understood rather less well than today, the ripening was influenced by whatever bacteria happened to be blowing through the air that week, and by whatever happened to land on the cheese first. Thus the colours of brie and camembert moulds could be white, as they are today, or they could be blue, grey, green, even black. What’s more you didn’t really know which colour – and of course, which flavour – they would end up being until after the ageing process was complete. Whether you think this “random” element in cheese taste and appearance was a good thing or one we’re better off without probably depends on your general attitude to food. Certainly it’s not particularly compatible with modern mass production, mass marketing and global, uniform retail strategies. And to be fair, it might have led to some less than marvelous cheese experiences, as well as some serendipitously joyous ones. Would funky black brie shift in Sainsbury’s, particularly when seated next to a greyish camembert and a packet of polo mints? Truly, a question for the ages.
A wise man once said that in England, the working classes eat cheddar and jam; the middle classes eat brie with grapes – a fine note of social commentary on which to finish this brief introduction to the history, manufacture and peculiarities of two of France’s most recognised soft cheeses.