The soft cheeses of France include the most quintessentially French of all: Brie and Camembert. These cheeses are so well-known they’re almost synonymous with fromage. Like French wines, soft cheeses have a long history and come steeped in legend. In this piece, we take a brief look at the history of Brie and other famous soft cheeses.
The King of cheeses – Brie
Of the two Brie cheeses with an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label, Brie de Meaux has the longest and most colourful history. However, Brie de Melun also has its own claim to centuries of production and literary references.
Brie de Meaux in the history books
Popular legend takes Brie de Meaux back as far as Roman times. Further unconfirmed sources claim the French Emperor Charlemagne first put the soft cheese on the world culinary map in 774. He reportedly tasted Brie at the Reuil-en-Brie monastery, but threw away the rind. When the Bishop present told him that the white crust was the “best part”, Charlemagne succumbed to the taste and ordered two cartloads to be sent to his castle in Aachen every year afterwards.
Several centuries later, Louis XVI’s arrest at his home in Sausse was supposedly precipitated because he was too busy snacking on red wine and Brie to escape in time. Marie Antoinette’s husband is said to have requested Brie as his last wish before his execution in 1793.
The French Revolution was also responsible for the spread of Brie from the châteaux of the aristocracy into the homes of ordinary French people. The revolutionary Joseph Lavallée said of the soft cheese that “Brie, loved by the rich and the poor, preached equality before anyone dreamed it possible”.
But Brie de Meaux’s biggest moment came a few years later at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 when European rulers were dividing up the French spoils after the fall of Napoleon. A French diplomat, the Duke of Talleyrand, organised a cheese competition to find the best in Europe. More than 60 cheeses entered the contest including world famous products such as Stilton and Gruyère, and of course, Brie de Meaux. Legend has it that there was literally no contest and Brie was crowned the King of Cheeses. In 1980, Brie de Meaux gained AOC status.
Did you know? Barthelemy Chasseneux’s 16th century catalogue of the world’s best food, Catalogus gloriae mundi, declared Brie the “roi de fromages”.
Behind Brie de Melun
The other AOC Brie, Brie de Melun, also produced in the area south-east of Paris, has a less illustrious back story but an ample sprinkling of popular legend. This Brie is thought to date back at least 1,000 years, although there are few reliable mentions in the history books. It is, however, thought to be the cheese in the popular La Fontaine fable The Fox and The Crow. Like its neighbouring soft cheese, Brie de Melun was awarded AOC status in 1980.
A bit about Camembert
Next up in our brief history of the soft cheeses of France is the other favourite, Camembert. Compared with Brie, Camembert is something of a baby since the history books place its appearance in the late 17th century.
A monk from the Brie region was forced to flee to Normandy during the French Revolution and he took refuge on a farm in the Baisse Normandie region. The farmer’s wife, Marie Christine Harel, learned his cheese making techniques and applied them to unpasteurised cow’s milk produced on the farm. Her children went on to perfect the technique and one of the most famous soft cheeses in France was born.
Camembert reached worldwide fame in 1890 when its hallmark wooden box was invented. This allowed the cheese to travel long distances and reach international palates. Later on, French army ration packs contained a portion of Camembert during World War I. The soft cheese was awarded the prestigious ‘Label Rouge’ in 1968. This denotes the superior quality of the cheese and AOC recognition arrived in 1983.
Did you know? The inspiration for Salvador Dali’s famous melting clocks in his painting The Persistence of Memory is said to come from his observation of Camembert in the midday heat.
A brief history of Epoisses
Another famous French soft cheese, Epoisses, comes from Burgundy. This is a stronger cheese and its white centre often has a crumbly texture. The first production dates back to the 16th century when, yet again, it was made by monks. But Epoisses had to wait until the beginning of the 19th century before it received recognition as one of the best soft cheeses of France. Napoleon was reportedly very partial to a slice or two.
By 1900, some 300 farms in the area produced the cheese. The two world wars halted production until the 1950s when a group of farmers revived the Epoisses label. It has since regained its place among reputable French cheeses and was awarded AOC status in 1991.
Did you know? The contrasting pungent smell and creamy taste of Epoisses is often likened to two well-known historic figures: it is said to have the force of Charles le Temeraire, a Burgundy Duke famous for his audacity, and the sensitivity of Madame de Sevigne, a society figure and writer.
One of the lesser-known soft cheeses of France hails from the Vallée de Munster in Alsace. But Munster, more yellow in colour than Brie and Camembert, too has a rich past. Archives place the first reference in the 7th century when local monks made cheese from unpasteurised cow’s milk. Munster gained AOC status in 1969, over a decade before its better-known competitors.
Did you know? Munster soft cheese is made from milk from the Vosgienne cows, traditionally used to pull ploughs and thought to have wandered by chance into France from Switzerland.
The Pont l’Evèque backstory
Not as well known as its fellow regional cheese Camembert, Pont l’Evèque is nevertheless a soft cheese that goes way back. Cistercian monks began making cheese in their monasteries to the west of Caen in Normandy as far back as the 12th century. So important was cheese to the local industry that it was used as payment and as a tax charge.
By the 17th century, Pont l’Evèque’s fame had spread beyond Normandy and a local writer Helie Cordier wrote a 16-verse poem in its honour in 1622. “Everyone loves it equally because it is made with so much art that young or old it is nothing but cream,” says one of the verses. Official recognition came in 1972 with the AOC award.
Did you know? Unlike Brie and Camembert, both round cheeses, Pont l’Evèque comes in a distinctive square shape.
Taste soft cheeses of France yourself
Soak up the history of the best soft cheeses and try their famous flavours for yourself as you wend your own way through French towns and villages on a hire boating holiday. Take your pick from our extensive choice of boat bases to start from and cruisers for all group sizes. Explore France on your terms while devouring more than your fair share of fine fromage (with perfectly paired vin).
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