by John Ryan
If you've ever wondered what the difference is between Brie and Camembert, this story will explain all. Of course, if you've never wondered about it, this story will be like learning about the 20 Years War in the 8th grade—something you remember studying, but can't recall anything about.
Once upon a time, farmers used surplus milk to make cheese. This was a use-it-or-lose-it time in history before refrigerators and freezers. Brie was a well-known cheese that came from the district around Brie, France. France has a very tidy naming tradition— Champagne is a well-known sparkling wine from Champagne; Chablis is a chardonnay from the town of Chablis and Dijon mustard was developed in...you guessed it, Dijon.
So the story goes that during the French Revolution a farm wife in Normandy hid a priest, who was on the run for one reason or another, from Brie. Being a revolution I figure it was probably due to politics, but who knows, maybe he was sick of his vows of poverty and ran off with the offering plate. Anyway, you gotta figure that the farmer made the priest help with the chores, so as a result, the priest probably passed on a few trade secrets from his cheese-making days at the monastery.
Evidently, the cheese was a hit because the woman kept making it and all her friends undoubtedly were always pestering her for the recipe. Knowing the value of a secret, she passed the recipe on to her daughter who eventually set up shop in the nearby village of Camembert. One day Napoleon III was in town for the opening of a rail line. During a PR tour of the town he tried the cheese and dubbed it "Camembert." The celebrity endorsement was good for business and she lived happily ever after. The only problem is that she neglected to register the name (you know, Camembert-tm, "The Cheese of Emperors"), so Camembert is a style of cheese that can be made anywhere.
Anymore it's a no-brainer. About the only problem you can have is if the store doesn't move much cheese and you get a box that's very old.
The downy white mold should be downy white. The mold is completely edible. However, there are no culinary demerits if you prefer the creamy cheese inside. When the mold starts getting brown streaks, it's getting old. Sometime after this the cheese will start smelling like ammonia. Toss it.
To give the cheese a longer life, keep it in the refrigerator. But for the best flavor, serve Camembert at room temperature—it'll taste better and spread better on bread or crackers.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created July 2000
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