Ask the Cheesemonger
Q: What is the difference between Brie and Camembert?
A:To understand the true differences between Brie and Camembert—both flat, soft disks of white, mold-ripened cow’s milk cheese—one must look to the original recipes. In the case of Brie, these include Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun. In the case of Camembert, Camembert de Normandie. (The first records of Brie appear in 774; Camembert was created more than a thousand years later, in 1791.)
Traditional Brie is large and flat, measuring about 14 to 16 inches in diameter and between one and two inches tall; the surface area allows for more moisture evaporation during aging, which impacts both the texture and flavor of the cheese. By comparison, Camembert de Normandie is much smaller and more compact, around four to five inches in diameter and one and a half inches tall; as a result, it matures faster than Brie.
Although both cheeses are made in northern France, according to AOC law, Brie must be made in Île-de-France and Camembert in Normandy, two distinct regions.
During production, the curd is handled in critically different ways. In crafting Camembert de Normandie, cheesemakers preserve moisture through minimal cutting before ladling the curd, using deep ladles without perforations. The molds are gradually filled, one ladle at a time, over the course of four hours. This technique, coupled with light pressing under a metal plate, makes for a more densely textured young cheese.
This step of ladling is different for Brie. The curd is cut, releasing more whey that is drained off. Cheesemakers use a unique ladle that is shallow and perforated; four or five ladles of curd fill molds that are set atop a mat made of local river reeds. The molds are filled more quickly and left to drain overnight without any additional weight, making for a less dense young cheese.
These differences translate into distinguishing flavors and textures in the finished cheeses: Camembert shows a heavier density in the mouth and an unforgettable flavor evocative of mushrooms, truffles, and wet hay versus Brie’s slightly brighter, tangier, even fruitier flavor.
Even though the real raw-milk versions of both cheeses remain unavailable in the U.S. due to FDA regulations, the most true-to-form pasteurized Brie cheeses are available from Rouzaire in Tournan-en-Brie, while Isigny Sainte-Mère and the Ile de France brand in Normandy or Graindorge in Livarot make really good Camembert cheeses. But when it comes to picking a favorite, it’s your taste that counts, so try them both and see what you like best.
Q: What causes some cheeses to
smell like ammonia?
A: Ammonia is a waste product created by the decomposition of nitrogen-containing proteins in the cheese and on its surface. This process is natural, and, when in balance with the well-developed aroma and flavor of a properly ripened cheese, it’s not unpleasant.
But if you’ve unwrapped and cut into your favorite soft cheese only to find it smelling intensely of ammonia, then you have a neglected, overripe cheese on your hands. Some of the ammonia will blow off a cheese if it is left unwrapped in a temperate, well-ventilated room. But if you find the cheese noxiously ammoniated soon after buying it, return it to your cheesemonger, who should replace it or refund your money, and hopefully investigate whether the problem was caused by the supplier or his own oversight.
To prevent a healthy cheese from becoming ammoniated, the best strategy is to eat it promptly! Otherwise, wrap it in a material that allows the cheese to breathe a little, such as cheese paper or wax paper; storing it in airtight plastic wrapping for too long is the primary cause of overly ammoniated cheese. c
Carlos Souffront has worked with cheese for nearly 15 years, the last 11 spent in the dairy department at Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As cheesemonger, his responsibilities include selecting, buying, finishing, and merchandizing traditional cheeses from Europe and the U.S.
photos: courtesy fotolia; benjamin dell; Kate Arding