Many cheeses are protected from deterioration by an outer coating, from the cheesecloth and paraffin of traditional cheddar to the cheery red of Holland's famous gouda. Others produce their own protective outer layer during the ripening process, under the influence of various beneficial molds and bacteria. The white powdery rind that coats Brie cheese is a notable example of that type of cheese.
A Soft, White Coat
The rind on a Brie comes from a specific strain of beneficial mold, Penicillium candidum. It's one of several varieties that thrive on milk and congregate naturally to dairies, and from the human perspective it has some outstanding characteristics. The first is that it tends to crowd out a wide range of molds that can spoil the cheese, from familiar blue-green and black molds to more exotic -- and unpleasant -- pink and yellow varieties. While those molds produce unpleasant flavors and sometimes toxins, P. candidum does a number of good things for the cheeses' flavor and texture.
A Full Partner
The quality of the milk used for a given cheese is important, reflecting everything from the time of day to the grass cattle have fed on, but P. candidum is a full partner in producing good Brie. The mold helps extract excess moisture from the cheese, concentrating its curd and concentrating its flavors as well. The mold also helps break down the milk's fats and proteins into their component lipids and amino acids, processes referred to respectively as lipolysis and protelysis. These fragmentary molecules are more volatile and unstable, and combine to create the complex, earthy flavors that mark a good Brie. Those processes also create the cheeses' distinctively soft texture.
Under the Hood
Brie is made by layering fine curds into a hoop, on top of a porous mat that permits whey to drain. Artisanal Brie typically incorporates Penicillium candidum into the milk before it's curdled, so part of the mold works from inside the cheese, then also washes the outside with water containing the mold. Small mass produced Brie-style cheeses are often cultured completely from the outside, which results in a blander but faster-developing cheese. The cheeses are kept in an environment with controlled temperature and humidity for several weeks and turned regularly, until they're fully ripened.
Eat It Or Not
There is a centuries-old anecdote that the emperor Charlemagne, upon carving the rind from his cheese, was told he was wasting the best part. For some aficionados the rind of a Brie represents a special pleasure, with its chewy texture and a delicately earthy flavor that's often compared to fine mushrooms. As the cheese grows older and its rind darkens, it develops a definite funk that only initiates find appealing. Choosing to eat the rind or leave it behind is a matter of personal preference, so feel free to follow the promptings of your own nose.
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