A question that comes up a lot in the shop is, “what’s the difference between Brie and Camembert?”
Typically, it starts out by someone holding up a small wheel of camembert while asking, “is this Brie?” The response of, “Nope, that’s a Camembert” is what gets the inevitable conversation going.
Brie and Camembert are both soft-ripened cheeses, a category I discussed (relatively briefly) a few posts back. Both are covered in soft, white, mold—the most obvious characteristic of a bloomy rind.
They are both French cheeses, with some variants carrying protected AOC status. Brie and Camembert are also both hand-ladled cheeses that are aged for fairly short periods of time (hence their soft-ripening), their curds are either not cut or are cut very little before they are ladled into forms, and both are traditionally made from cow’s milk.
The cheeses even have identical descriptions in the Codex Alimentarius, the rule-book of standards used for food trade:
“Brie is a soft surface ripened, primarily white mould ripened cheese in conformity with the General Standard for Cheese (CODEX STAN 283-1978), which has a shape of a flat cylinder or sectors thereof. The body has a near white through to light yellow colour and a soft-textured (when thumbs-pressed), but not crumbly texture, ripened from the surface to the center of the cheese. Gas holes are generally absent, but few openings and splits are acceptable. A rind is to be developed that is soft and entirely covered with white mould but may have red, brownish or orange coloured spots. Whole cheese may be cut or formed into sectors prior to or after the mould development.” (Codex Alimentarius.)
Compare that to:
“Camembert is a soft surface ripened, primarily mould ripened cheese in conformity with the General Standard for Cheese (CODEX STAN 283-1978), which has a shape of a flat cylinder or sectors thereof. The body has a near white through to light yellow colour and a soft-textured (when pressed by thumb), but not crumbly texture, ripened from the surface to the center of the cheese. Gas holes are generally absent, but few openings and splits are acceptable. A rind is to be developed that is soft and entirely covered with white mould but may have red, brownish or orange coloured spots. Whole cheese may be cut or formed into sectors prior to or after the mould development.” (Codex Alimentarius.)
The word choice is identical, apart from the naming of a “Brie” versus a “Camembert.” So how are the two cheeses different?
The most obvious difference comes from the names of the cheeses. Named for the places from which they originally came, true Brie and Camembert carry with them not only the history and culture of cheese making in those areas, but also the taste of their respective terroirs.
This area is a lowland basin with some plateaus, most famous for the Seine River that cuts through the nation’s capital. The land is somewhat dry and somewhat forested.
Compare this to Camembert, a village northwest of the Île de France in the region of Normandy. The department in which Camembert lies, Orne, is the only department of Normandy that is landlocked and not touching the English Channel.
Despite this, the land is lush, home to rivers and marshes, as well as a few forests. The marshy grasses that the cows are eating in Camembert provide a different flavor and aroma profile than the drier grasses eaten by the cows in modern Brie.
Whereas Camembert tends to be more mushroomy and buttery, a little sharper or garlicky even, Brie is slightly beefier and milkier in flavor than Camembert—but not as strong.
A good, traditional, unpasteurized Camembert should also be grassier tasting than a good, traditional, unpasteurized Brie. But both will be delicious—you just have to go to Europe to try them! (I talk a little about the FDA’s rules on aging and importing soft-ripened cheeses in my earlier post about brie-style cheeses.)
Then comes the next difference: size and aging.
Traditional Bries, like Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, weigh around three pounds and look like large, flat discs. Traditional Camembert is made into small wheels that are typically around four inches in diameter—as compared to the nine- to 14.5-inches in diameter of the bigger Bries.
Because of their larger size, the Bries take longer to age and ripen, whereas the smaller Camembert is ready to eat much more quickly.
Also in part as a result of their size differences, Brie is not as strong as Camembert. This is because the ratio between rind and paste takes on a different proportion in Brie—forcing the milk to do more work, so to speak—so the effect is of a slightly blander cheese than you get in the smaller format Camembert.
I once brought home a camembert from Germany and stashed it in my suitcase—not even in a plastic baggie or anything; just loose with my socks and underwear, whatever. I kid you not, I could smell my suitcase before I even saw it coming on the belt at the airport.
Everything inside my suitcase (and including my suitcase) reeked of ripe Camembert when I got home. Let’s just say that everyone who had to ride in the car with me was not impressed.
While the smell test and the size test work well for traditional French Bries and Camemberts, things get a little confusing when you take into account the trend of “petite Bries” and baby Bries, especially among American cheesemakers. (This is not to say that there aren’t smaller format Bries in France or other parts of Europe; it is just immediately obvious in American cheese shops.)
Because these cheeses aren’t name-protected, they can be however big or small the cheesemaker wants them to be. It’s easier to make a smaller cheese—and get it to ripen perfectly more quickly—and it is easier to package and transport them.
So thanks to economics and ergonomics, it becomes really difficult to tell the difference between a small Brie and a regular-sized Camembert when the cheeses don’t come from Normandy or the Île de France. At that point, you have to take the cheesemaker’s word for granted and hope they put their preference in the cheese’s name or description.
And if not, you just have to call it a soft-ripened / bloomy-rinded / brie-style / camembert-style cheese. Sorry!