Friday, May 27, 2011

Eating Le Brie (cheese) while in La Brie (region) on May 1st

La Brie is a historic region of France close to Paris. It is a region just like Brittany, Normandy or Provence. My cousin has been living there all her life. We stayed with her and her husband when we arrived in France at the end of last April. She lives in a little town close to Melun, the larger town in the region. The region of Brie is about 50 kms (31 miles) from Paris between the rivers Seine and the Marne and covers about 5,000 square kilometers. The people are called “Briards” (masc) and “Briardes” (fem.)

Map showing the Brie region (from Wikipedia)

There is a feeling of being in the country there as the landscape still is an area of large fields, forests and small villages. There are beautiful castles close by too like Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Postcard of a watercolor by P. Riviere

I wrote a post in December 2009 about Vaux-le-Vicomte castle and took many pictures – you can see them here. I loved to go to visit my cousins when I was growing up as I felt we were going far away from Paris as we drove down little roads. Now there are freeways and the RER metro line and it is almost a suburb area for Paris. But the old farms are still there close to the fields.

Click on collage to enlarge, then click on each picture

The name “Brie” is well known, not because of the area “La région de la Brie” but for its cheese, “le fromage le Brie.” It has a long history there – Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 AD) tasted the cheese in a small Brie village in 774 and this was duly noted. Later, Louis XVI’s (1754-1793) last wish before going to the guillotine was to get a final taste of Brie cheese. In 1814 the Prince of Talleyrand brought the cheese to the Congress of Vienna. This Brie de Meaux was awarded first prize and was declared “Le Roi des Fromages” (The King of Cheeses.) There are several Brie cheeses made in the Brie region – they take their names from the names of the cities where they are made. See below.

Now, all over the world different Brie cheeses are sold: light Brie, herbed varieties, double cream or made with other types of milk. The French government officially certified only two types of cheese to be sold under that name : Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun. This certification is called “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)” which means “controlled designation of origin.” This is not a brand or a registered trademark – it is a certification that the product has been produced under a rigorous set of defined standards – in a traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in a designated area. Under French law you cannot call a cheese “Brie” if it was not produced in that region. It is the same for wine – Champagnes are produced in the Champagne region, Bordeaux wines in the Bordeaux region and so on. Certainly you would not call a wine a “California” wine if it had been produced in Michigan. Brie cheeses produced in California or Canada are not genuine and don’t taste the same as the real thing (I know – I have tasted them all.) There are many other cheeses in France with this AOC certification, like Roquefort, Camembert, Port Salut, etc.

Postcard showing some of France's cheeses

Because of all these cheeses, a quote from General De Gaulle is well known: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese? “ (Charles de Gaulle.) That was then but now France produces more types of cheeses, between 350 and 400 or so. About 40 of them have the AOC certification. My cousin always has a great selection when we visit her.

The Sunday after watching The Wedding (see last post) it was May 1st. My cousin’s husband went to the florist early and surprised us with some lily of the valley to bring us happiness for the rest of the year – according to the French custom. (I wrote a post on this, see it here.) We went to the balcony so I could take a picture of it.

My cousin placed her lily of the valley in a little vase.

Then we went to the market to buy some fresh vegetables, fruits and cheeses bien sûr ! (of course.) Below is my cousin buying some cheese.

My cousin is a gourmet cook. The largest meal of the day at her home is lunch. The evening meal is very light. That Sunday we had some delicious scallops with fresh herbs on tender spaghetti for lunch, accompanied by a beautifully balanced rosé wine.

We ended the meal with the “plat de fromages“ an assortment of cheeses – she had at least 3 types of Brie – de Meaux, de Melun and de Provins – all this accompanied by a great Champagne (they usually go to the producer and buy a quantity of bottles.)

In the family it is well known that I like cheese. I have been brought up on cheese, really. I read in my mother’s memoirs where she said that while living in Provence with her parents soon after I was born (my father was in the war) she would sew dresses or make alterations to clothes for many farmers in the area. She was not paid but received each week a couple of eggs and some cheese to feed me. When she went away to another town to work my grandparents fed me mostly goat cheese that they obtained from the local shepherds.

My grandmother and me around 1942 in Vaison-la-Romaine

When I was about 3 or 4 I went back to Paris with my mother - food was scarce. The French were given ration books to obtain food, clothes and other necessities. Often even with the ration tickets food, like meat, was not available, and from 1940 to 1944 many ration tickets were left unused. I ate mostly cheese because everyone in the family gave my mother their cheese ration tickets to feed me. Below is a ration book and ration tickets.

The tickets above are for bread – 100 grams per day or approx 3.75 ounces – bread made from a mixture of corn, beans, rice and other grains and not tasty. For cheese the ration was 6 grams per day or 0.211 ounces. I rarely ate meat and when offered some could not eat it well. I read that France had ration books until 1948 (bread 1949.) So my eating cheese goes way back. After coming to the US in the 60s, I went back to France many times, about every other year at first, then every year and starting in 1984 when my mother became ill I flew to Paris about two or 3 times a year until 2002 – a total of perhaps 46 to 52 times till 2002 (Unfortunately I went back home not as a tourist so I rarely took pictures of Paris.) My mother, paralyzed, had the meals on wheels service so there was no cooking at home. I bought different cheeses, a baguette and a good bottle of wine - that was my dinner when I visited her.

For the evening meal of this 1st of May, we just had some “charcuterie” (paté and local sausages) and some cheese, too.

During the day the florist rang twice bringing flowers sent to my cousins from their daughters who live in other parts of France. The first bouquet was an assortment of lily of the valley with pink flowers – I don’t know their names.

The second bouquet was an assortment of pale roses and lily of the valley.

My cousin was pleased to display them in the dining room.

It certainly had been a happy 1st of May.

Postcard of a watercolor by Thierry Gaudry called Cidre Briard et Brie de Coulommiers


Lonicera said...

My mouth is watering... I adore cheese, and often eat Brie in England. I'm sure there aren't anywhere near as many varieties as there are in France, but British cheeses are wonderful, and it has always surprised me that in the US, the land of plenty, there is so very little to choose from that isn't processed cheese. I wonder why that is?
Just today I bought myself some lily of the valley talcum powder and have been sniffing it on and off all day (!) I love it so much.
Lovely post.

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

A good cheese, a crusty baguette, and a bottle of wine could be my dinner anytime. Loved the story about you and your mother and growing up after the war.

Sounds like you are having a wonderful visit with your cousin. I can not imagine how fabulous it would be to be able to go to the producer to buy champagne. That's reason enough to live in France. Well, that and being able to buy good rose wine, which we became very fond of after spending some time in Provence.

Ann said...


DJan said...

I don't eat as much cheese as I would like, since I am still trying to keep my weight down. Cheese is one of those things that I don't seem to be able to eat in moderation. I love the pictures of the flowers, they are just beautiful, especially that very first one. I think I could smell the roses...

Jeanie said...

What a simply glorious post! I adore cheese -- I always have, always will. But the detail you share in your descriptions and backgrounds make the experience so much richer! I have to confess that during my trip to Paris, I think I ate more cheese than I possibly should have had in my life! I have since incorporated cheese as a dessert or pre-dessert course quite often. It's simply wonderful.

What was interesting was as you spoke of the region and the towns, they sounded vaguely familiar to me. When you mentioned Vaux le Vicomte, I knew why -- we opted to visit there instead of Versailles and some of the more frantic spots and I was pleased we did, although as I wrote in my post, it seemed they'd become a bit lax in the cleaning department! I'm going to click through now to your post! The photos will bring back lovely memories.

One other note -- I will be linking to your lily of the valley post sometime early in June -- I'm preset for a bit due to some busy times. As my lilies of the valley finally blossomed, late this year because of the cold, I thought of you and your lovely post on this subject. A month or so late, perhaps. Still... the bouquets your cousins' daughters sent -- lovely in every way.

Pat said...

Bread, cheese fruit and wine and the French country-side - -what more could one ask for?

Cloudia said...

What a privilege and joy to read this wonderful post!

Aloha from Honolulu

Comfort Spiral




Margaret said...

Fascinating history mixed with your memories. I love the photo of you and your grandmother. I am visiting Biltmore this weekend and your castle postcard reminds me a lot of it.

Pondside said...

There is nothing at all like eating the product of a region while in the region. French cheese, German cheese, Danish cheese - on the right bread. It's one of my favorite meals too.
I enjoyed reading a little more about your childhood.

Kay L. Davies said...

What a wonderful post! Brie is my favorite cheese, and I feel I've learned so much.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Linda Reeder said...

My mouth is watering, and I just had dinner! I love Brie with fresh bread.
And I picked a little bouquet of lily-of-the valley from my garden this morning.

Frances said...

Vagabonde, I would like you to know that being able to read this post of yours, and see beautiful pictures, while also reading well written words telling me so much about French history (of my own life span) is a wonderful gift to this reader.

You always add to my knowlege, whether it is of bridges in Georgia, or this amazing lesson in regional French cheese, rations during the 1940's, floral traditions ... and much more.

It is delight to visit here!


Vicki Lane said...

What a wonderful way to celebrate the first of May.

ruma said...

Votre message doux et travaille charmes mon coeur.

Please watch cute dolls of Japanese girls.

Japanese Doll Festival

Traditional doll decoration

The prayer for all peace...

De Saga, Japon.

Diane said...

What a fantastic post. I have just driven over to the UK from France for a week and saw the sign to Brie en route. Having heard more from you now I must definately plan to drop off and take a look. Diane

FilipBlog said...

Super article, we are cheese lovers. Nice layout, very professional.

Miss_Yves said...

Merci pour ce billet qui rend hommage aux particularités françaises !
Oui, les français sont très attachés à leurs fromages et à l'appellation contrôlée.
Attention:On boit plutôt le fromage avec un vin rouge de qualité qu'avec du champagne!!!!
Je crois que les fleurs roses sont des freezias

Le mot de code de vérification des mots "gardera"est amusant pour ce billet qui garde(ra ) la tradition!

Belle nature morte moderne , à l'aquarelle!

Miss_Yves said...


Ruth said...

A gorgeously delicious post, Vagabonde. I love cheese, but I don't eat it as much now. We have cut out much dairy.

I remember a big regret from a lunch with my sister at Le Grande Vefour in Paris. It is a Michelin 3 star restaurant, and it was a big deal. I was buying, and the cost was astronomical, of course. So I thought I could not afford the assortment of cheeses the waiter brought by on a cart at the end of the meal. I was angry with myself for that, still am. But we made up for it on a subsequent visit with Ginnie and her then partner Donica, when we did order an assortment of cheeses, which were just brilliant.

I also have another memory from a little fromagerie on Ile St Louis when we bought some Roquefort, and the shop lady thanked Don, and said, "auvoir Monsieur Foreigner" in her beautiful French accent.

Wanda..... said...

I feel I've experienced a little of the magic of Paris through your wonderful post. Your life is lovely.

Fennie said...

I enjoyed that, Vagabonde, as I enjoy all your posts, but have to say that even really good Brie that is properly ripe has never seemed a candidate for the 'King of Cheeses' when there are so many others competing for the title. And how such cheese could even be edible after being dragged to Vienna is incomprehensible. Knowing Talleyrand I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't bring along his own cheese-maker and had him make Brie there in Vienna and then had it passed off as authentic French Brie.

Can I be horribly pedantic now about the de Gaulle quote? What he actually said was "How, in the absence of an external threat, can one govern etc". He was making the point as much about the binding together of all the 'pays' and how they would fragment without some external challenge to the French nation as about the difficulties of local government or varieties of cheese.

Unknown said...

Beautiful first photo! And I like the tree-lined path photo, too.

Anonymous said...

Passes une bonne fête des mères demain. Ta poste a été une régale !

Rosaria Williams said...

A cheese plate finishes a meal beautifully! I loved hearing about your childhood, Vagabonde.

kyh said...

Beautiful and delicious story! I adores cheeses. French people are so blessed with all these yummy treats! ;)

As always, enjoyed your tale. Happy Sunday!

marciamayo said...

Another beautiful posting. I adore Paris, my favorite city in the world, although I've only been there twice.

Lifecruiser Travel Blog said...

Oh my good, this looks like cheese heaven to me :-P

Wonderful photos, almost like it were paintings... Enjoying every one of them fully.

I dream about making a long journey trough all of France one day - maybe when I get retired?

OldLady Of The Hills said...

So many amazing cheeses to choose from...! YUM, YUM, YUM....I love all the pictures of the different cheeses....I always have a Brie en Cote or is it Crute(?) with Apricots--WARMED, of course, at my New Years Party...It is Soooo damn good! I could nake a meal of that!
I love the Lily of The Valley tradition...It is such a sweet and loving thing to do. I wish we had that here. The food in France is always so very good, too, especiallu if the person cooking it--like your cousin--is a genius of cooking! What a wonderful time you had there, my dear.

Shammickite said...

When I visited France a few years ago with my sons, we made many lunches of crusty bread, cheese and sometimes wine, sometimes beer.
My favourite cheese in France was Rebluchon, but I have not seen it for sale in my local grocery store.

Helen said...

This post - and your blog - thoroughly delightful! I read your comment on Stafford's blog. My son lives in Roswell .. I swear there is a church on every block! I love visiting him and return every chance I get. He lives within walking distance of Historic Roswell - they certainly know how to celebrate ~ Five Alive is great! Enjoy your weekend.

sweffling said...

I'm trying to catch up with my favourite blogs: this is a lovely post, and just oozes France. I much prefer Brie to Camembert and think the custom of giving Lily of the Valley on May 1st is beautiful! Are the pink flowers Freesias? I envy you your visit:)

sandy said...

Great post and i enjoyed the photos of the cheeze, the spaghetti ...and now i'm hungry and it's too late to eat.

i enjoyed reading about your trip.

Ginnie said...

May 1 is May Day, Vagabonde, so it was a perfect day for all those wonderful flowers, sprinkled with lily of the valley. How sweet. You are clearly a special lady to your relatives!

And CHEESE. I am NOT like my sister Ruth, cutting down on dairy products. In fact, maybe I'm now also eating her share. I LOVE cheese. But this post has been very educational about what exactly is the 'real deal.' Leave it to the French, of course. :)

Anonymous said...

I could not read the blog because the Google translator widget does not have English or US or American. Sorry.

Olga said...

Stunning post. It's a real treat for the soul. Not only because I was eating Brie this morning :) I love these kinds of inside stories about traveling.

Anonymous said...

It was in another language this morning.
I looked for English and it wasn't there and thought it was odd not to be there.

So I left the comment above.

I return and it is in English.

I read it and loved your photos.

claude said...

C'est bon le brie et vive le muguet de mai !
Je repasse plus tard.

John's Island said...

Hi Vagabonde, I really must congratulate you on putting together such a wonderful blog. Your combination of information and photos is unusually well done. I think I've mentioned to you before that you're an inspiration for those of us who like to blog. Really enjoyed all the info on Brie cheeses. No doubt there are millions of us who love Brie, but very few will know the story behind it. Your photo of the evening meal, scallops with fresh herbs on spaghetti, looks scrumptious! Thank you so much for sharing and also for your kind comments on my blog. Hope you have an excellent day! John

Elaine said...

It sounds like you had a delightful time visiting with your cousin. I always enjoy hearing about your childhood in France, and the picture with your grandmother is lovely.

Kay said...

Gracious! All these photos made me hungry. I love the bouquet photos also. Each one is so exquisite. I used to love to put Lilies of the Valley on my desk at school. The scent was wonderful.

zaloette said...

I love cheese and I love France so I guess your post today was just a hit in two of my favourite topics!

Kind regards,


The Broad said...

Your blog is just beautiful and I am so happy to have discovered it. I'm a Connecticut Yankee who has lived in the UK for most of 30 years and for the last 13 have summered in the Department of the Lot. Your photos are just perfection and the commentary brings your adventures to life. I too love Brie cheese, but have known little about its history and provenance -- thank you. One of the joys of travelling around the French countryside is the discovery of wines and cheeses and local specialities -- each department seems to be a world of its own. Thank you for your wonderful enthusiastic blog!

Reader Wil said...

Merci de ce compte de vos vacances en France. Moi, j'aime aussi le fromage de Brie.En fait j'aime toutes les sortes de fromage.
Merci de votre commentaire. Aux Pays-Bas nous pouvons entendre aussi des sirènes chaque premier lundi du mois mais je comprend que c'est toujours très terrifiant pour vous.

Dianne said...

Oh! I love Brie - and how fortunate you were to be eating it in the actual area that it it made.I love your photos.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

Hi Vagadone, this post was wonderful because not only did it tell me of your wonderful adventures, but also a lot more about brie than I knew before. And reading it was a complete delight. Thanks for sharing.

Deborah said...

Ah Vagabonde, you're a woman after my own heart. I could happily live on nothing but bread and cheese, but without the wine perhaps, which I have never learned to really appreciate.
When I moved to France the first time, at the age of 29, I had a very limited palate. My first glimpse of the enormous cheese counter at Continent was a revelation, but for a long time I just hunted among the hundreds of varietes to find Cheddar. My tastebuds gradually grew up and now I wouldn't dream of eating Cheddar in France, nor for that matter anywhere else unless it's genuine and old.
My temporary detox regime doesn't allow dairy products except for goat's cheese, and of course it's no problem getting lots of different kinds here. But I do miss other cheeses, of which Brie was a favourite.
Thank you again for your very kind words at my place the other day. We all have our own style - and I enjoy yours very much.

Deborah said...

Et en plus, on peut pas faire mieux que 'supprimez...tout ce qui constitue le superflu!!'

Vagabonde said...

Lonicera – I do not know why they don’t make more cheeses in the US – it is very sad because I think people would buy it. Thanks for the comment.

Sam@my Carolina Kitchen, Ann, DJan, Jeanie, Pat, Cloudia, Margaret, Pondside, Kay L. Davies, Linda Reeder, Frances, Vicki Lane, Food Fun and Life in the Charente, Ruth, Wanda, Tim, Rosaria, Kyh, Marciamayo, Life Cruiser Travel Blog, Old Lady of the Hills, Sweffling, Ginnie, Honest Abe, Olga, John’s Island, Elaine, Kay, Markosy, Beatrice P. Boyd – thanks to all of you for having taken the time to read my story on cheese. I wish we could all meet and have a cheese party. Thanks again for all your kinds comments – merci.

Vagabonde said...

Ruma, Filip Demuinck, Helen, Sandy, The Broad, Diane – welcome to my blog. I am pleased to meet new bloggers and hope that y’all come back, as they say here, whenever you wish. It is a pleasure to meet you all.

Fennie – I did not know the whole quote from de Gaulle and am pleased that you wrote it. Thanks for the comment.

Dedene, Miss_Yves, Claude, Reader Wil, - Merci d’avoir visité mon blog. C’est toujours super sympa de lire vos commentaires en français. Amicalement VB

Shammickite – Reblochon has been a favorite of mine for many years as well. I can’t find it in Atlanta either. Thanks for stopping by.

Deborah – I need to hear more about a detox program with goat cheese allowed – that’s for me. Tell me more about it. Thanks for the comment.

rauf said...

Governing a nation with two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese is lot less complex than governing a nation with hundreds of different languages dialects, food and cultures like India.

ration cards were issued to Indians during the British rule. i thought rationing is found only in a poor country like India. Even today a ration card is more important document than a passport.
When you apply for a passport you have to produce the original ration card for verification.

i am glad that your 1st of May was a memorable one and you enjoyed it. i heard about the monsoon failure in Europe this year. Hope the land the animals and the people get enough water this year. hope you are doing fine Vagabonde

Jana said...

great blog...j adore les fromages francaises:-))lovely pictures and posters u post...have a good sunday!

Unknown said...

Thank you. That was quite fascinating. With reference to Brie being considered (by the French) as 'The King of cheeses', some fifteen years ago I was walking around a food market in Stockholm and came across a cheese stall with cheeses from all over Europe. The display was pyramidal in shape, and at the very top of the pile was a quarter of a chees with a label, in Swedish and English, that declared 'Stilton - The King of Cheeses'.

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