I was making a cheese tray the other weekend and was hoping to find camembert at my local market. Unfortunately, they had none. I had extra time, so I went to a different shop and was able to find camembert. However, I may not always have that much shopping time. What would be a suitable replacement for camembert?
Brie. Camembert and Brie are both semi-soft cheeses made from cow’s milk, inoculated with the same penicillium candidum mold, and ripened for the same length of time, four to six weeks. Because US law forbids the sale of cheeses made from unpasteurized (raw) milk unless they are aged longer than sixty days, Bries and Camemberts in this country are all made with pasteurized milk. That’s a shame, because so much of the subtle differences between these cheeses is lost as a result.
As with bread making, cheese making is essentially a simple process. Simple, however, does not mean lacking in complexity. The same few ingredients – milk, starter, a curdling agent, perhaps a mold, and salt – yield astonishingly different results depending on how they are handled. The type of milk, its butterfat content, the time of year, where and what the animal grazed; the type of culture; a mold if one is used; how the curd is cut; the size and shape; whether or not the cheese is pressed, how long, how, and where it is ripened… there are endless variables.
By French law, Brie comes from a specific region in France, as does Camembert. In the US, these cheeses could be from France, any one of a number of different countries, or different states within the US. Some are better than others, though I don’t find any of them as good as the French versions eaten in their native country. I’m speaking of cheeses readily available in grocery stores, not less-readily available artisan cheeses, which can be spectacularly good.
Regardless of which you’re serving, it is important that the cheese be properly ripened. Once a cheese is cut into, the ripening process ceases. Too soon, and you’ll find it has a chalky layer. Too late, and the cheese will be overly liquid and ammoniacal. Years ago I was friendly with the manager of an excellent cheese shop near my home, and he had a customer who claimed a good Brie should be like biting into a baby’s diaper – ugh! Not only did Charlie not sell any cheese remotely resembling said object, we agreed this customer must be totally lacking a sense of smell.
I find most of the soft-ripened cheeses sold in grocery stores are cut too young and therefore unripe. A wedge of Brie or Camembert should have no chalky line in its interior, and should be lightly oozing with golden, buttery goodness. Although either cheese in this country will be missing that taste of “terroir”, the subtle flavor reminiscent of its place of origin, if it’s properly ripe, it will be tasty.