Brie, cheese of kings

Taking its name from the region from which it originates, Brie is among the most famous of cheeses anywhere.

Made in much the same way in France today as it has been since the 8th century, this soft, yellow-white cheese is rightly called the Cheese of Kings. But, one needn't be Charlemagne to appreciate its fine qualities.

Like other cheeses, Brie acquires its distinctive texture and flavor as a result of a combination of factors - the milk used, the bacteria or acid used to curdle the milk, the amount and style of aging and any additives introduced or applied.

In the case of genuine French Brie, unpasteurized milk is typically used, rennet is added to raw milk and heated to human body temperature (37°C/98.6°F). It's then cast into molds with a perforated ladle called a 'pelle à brie'.

The result is salted and a mold introduced, either penicillium candidum or penicillium camemberti. The latter is one reason Brie and Camembert are similar. The cheese is then aged for about a month under carefully controlled conditions of temperature and humidity. Though, in many cases, the mold on the exterior is the result of spraying, not aging. In French Brie, it grows naturally on the cheese in the cellar.

Since it doesn't keep well, genuine Brie is usually consumed very shortly after completion of the aging process. Commercially manufactured Brie in the U.S. has spoilage retardants that help extend shelf live, but even in that case the cheese is short-lived. But then, given the stellar taste, that's not usually a problem.

Since U.S. import laws require that any milk-based products be aged more than 60 days, no genuine French Brie can be found here. Also, the USDA doesn't permit unpasteurized milk products to be imported from elsewhere. Any Brie sold in the U.S. will have been produced in the country. But it will still, if it is good Brie, have been made the same way.

Brie is very difficult to create properly. Like other soft cheeses, it has a relatively short aging period - no more than a few weeks usually. During this time, the original style (made in Meaux) is created from cow's milk and produces a white mold over the surface. Meaux in the Marne area of France is one of the few areas officially designated as AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) approved. Brie from this area is 'the real deal'.

After shipping, whether to the next town or from Meaux to the south of France, it ripens more on the way. Brie can differ in character considerably as a result of temperature conditions along the way. Since it can accumulate ammonia under the rind, it's best served by piercing the rind and allowing it to air for about half an hour before eating.

The entire round should be eaten within a few days, once exposed, even if stored in a refrigerator. After that it rapidly becomes crumbly and loses that delicious Brie texture and flavor. One common style of serving involves heating it to a gooey consistency and smearing onto a cracker or small piece of bread. Umm!