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)
Postcard of a watercolor by P. RiviereThe 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.
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.
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 cheesesThe 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.
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.
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.
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.