To brie or not to brie?
If you ever find yourself selecting cheese for a party, that is the question. You might think it’s a good idea to brie. In the last few decades, the cheese has become the default choice for a “classy” occasion. As online grocer FreshDirect puts it, “It’s what your guests expect (and want) you to serve.” How could you go wrong?
I am here to tell you that you can go wrong. In fact, you go wrong just about every time you choose brie for a party. The reasons are simple: It’s bland, it’s boring, and – at least in the United States – it’s rarely even the real thing.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when brie – at once buttery and earthy, literally oozing with flavor – was the cheese of royalty. Charlemagne was reputedly a devoted fan. At one of history’s poshest parties, the Congress of Vienna, the 19th century French diplomat Talleyrand reportedly called for a break from divvying up the nations in order to stage a cheese tournament. Lord Castlereagh of England spoke in favor of Stilton, Dutch minister Baron de Falck nominated Limberger, and Italy and Switzerland countered with Strachino and Gruyère. Talleyrand remained quiet until the end, when the brie was brought in. After a vote, the conference declared another king, le roi des fromages (“the king of cheeses”).
But the intervening centuries have not been kind to brie. As the legacy of the Congress of Vienna collapsed, brie’s region of origin, Brie, was ravaged by the Franco-Prussian War; the area’s dairy industry has never been the same. Next, as Steven W. Jenkins laments in his “Cheese Primer,” the land fell to industrialists. Around the 1950s, brie became largely a factory cheese — produced not by small farms but by factories in another region, Lorraine.
It gets worse. Brie’s popularity boomed in the United States in the ’70s and ’80s, even as the finest bries were being shut off from these shores. In 1985, the FDA, fearing dangerous bacteria, began to require that all cheeses be pasteurized or at least aged for 60 days before they’re imported. Since the brie of Talleyrand and Charlemagne was always an unpasteurized cheese that would spoil if aged for so long – and since good bacteria were considered necessary to make a proper brie – the law effectively outlawed true brie from the United States.
As a result, the “brie” you’ll find in the United States today is generally brie in name only. The oldest and most popular varieties, Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, are required by French law to be made with raw milk, and are thus prohibited from crossing our borders.