Some 25 miles from Paris, in the département of Seine-et-Marne, there’s a model farm inhabited by cows so contented they seem ready
to break into smiles. These black-and-white bovines are straight out of a children’s book—Holsteins with lustrous coats and inquisitive looks. Just slightly condescending, they allow themselves to be admired and seem to find this quite normal.
Only a privileged few are allowed into the barn—this is not a school of agriculture, nor a showplace for city dwellers pining for the countryside, but a business, where almost 4,000 acres are devoted to mixed farming. The property, the Domaine des Trente Arpents, belongs to Baron Benjamin de Rothschild who, with his wife Ariane, is carrying on the work of his father, Baron Edmond de Rothschild. (An arpent is an ancient measure, amounting to slightly less than an acre.) Concentrating on the ancient regional tradition of cheesemaking, Baron Edmond focused on dairy production while at the same time enlarging his domain, developing its forests and pastures, and growing grain.
Today the wood provides heating fuel and the forests themselves harbor a hunting reserve and diversified fauna that are carefully regulated and controlled. The farm employs 28 workers, and the various renovated agricultural buildings have been transformed into 55 dwellings: about half of them are employee housing; the other half are rented out to visitors in search of comfort and tranquility in an exceptional setting.
Of the more than 2,500 tons of cereals produced on the farm, part serves as winter feed for the 320 head of cattle. And most important, the 150 milk cows produce 370,000 gallons of milk a year, which is turned into 176 tons of dairy products, including the famous Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, cheeses named after two towns in Seine-et-Marne.
Vive le Brie!
The origins of Brie are lost in the mists of time. Charlemagne was one of the first celebrities to appreciate it, even before his coronation in 800 AD. History is studded with examples of kings who were wild about it, right up to Louis XVI who, they say, lost precious time during his attempted escape from revolutionary France by stopping to taste a piece of Brie, the cheese he loved so much. It could be that his gourmandise was his fatal error.
At the 1814–1815 Congress of Vienna, Talleyrand—then minister to Louis XVIII, after having served under Napoleon—represented France, a difficult task after the defeat at Waterloo, just before the conference ended. All of Europe was supposed to come to an agreement about each country’s boundaries. An extremely able diplomat,Talleyrand set out to seduce the ambassadors and their retinues by the magnificence of his receptions and—with the complicity of his chef, the great Antonin Carême—by the richness and refinement of his table.
And succeed he did—with his long experience, he knew perfectly well how gastronomy could influence negotiations. During one of his dinners the conversation touched on the comparative merits of cheeses, each country’s ambassador defending his country’s best. In the end, all the cheeses in question were brought in for a dégustation, and Talleyrand got everyone to agree that Brie de Meaux was the king of cheeses. It was impossible to contradict him—how could they offend a host who had entertained them so sumptuously?
In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether those gentlemen were sincere or not—Brie remains a cheese of worldwide renown. It obtained a French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) designation in 1980, which has now become a European AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). While Brie de Meaux is more famous, with over 8,000 tons produced annually in a very large authorized geographical area, Brie de Melun is more or less confined to its own small sector, and just 275 tons are produced each year.
As far as the Rothschilds are concerned, no matter what the undertaking, they usually don’t trifle with excellence—making the best possible Brie was the only possible goal. So first of all, their cheeses had to qualify as “fermier”, meaning made only from milk produced by cows on their own farm, with no extra milk brought in from elsewhere. At the moment, the only Brie de Meaux with the right to use the fermier label is from the Ferme des Trente Arpents; for Brie de Melun, Trente Arpents is one of only two producers with the fermier label. To master the process from start to finish and ensure top quality, a high-performance fromagerie was created, where tradition and modernity go hand in hand.
But back to the herd. The cows benefit from a well-ventilated barn filled with natural light and plenty of space and straw. In hot weather, sprinklers provide a cooling mist and moisture, and the animals move between pasture and barn at different times of day. The cows are milked twice a day, resting before milking in the barn near the fromagerie. So it’s not surprising that, thanks to such good treatment, these belles dames are always in a good mood. For 20 years now they’ve been giving their milk to this environmentally correct, model fromagerie.
Petals and rushes
The cheese is made daily. Raw milk from the two daily milkings ferments for 16 hours before being transferred to a basin. At 5 am the next day a small amount of rennet is added to curdle the milk. The next step is sabrage, when the curd is cut into small cubes. Then, with a pelle à Brie, an enormous scoop that looks like a giant sieve, thin layers of curd are arranged in circular molds 14 inches in diameter—it looks like an arrangement of petals. It takes 6.6 gallons of milk to make a six-pound Brie, which shows how much liquid will drain out of the mold.
In order for the cheese to develop correctly, the temperature of the room is raised to 91° F while the lactoserum drains out; it will go to the pigs. The cheeses are turned three times as the temperature is gradually reduced to 75° F for six hours, then to 66° F to allow acidification to take place.
The cheese molds rest on natural rush mats, which explains the texture on the crust once the cheese has aged. The mats are changed every three months, washed and sterilized before each use. Some producers replaced natural rushes long ago with fake plastic straw,but Trente Arpents sticks to tradition, while taking precautions against hygiene risks.
The next day the cheeses are unmolded, salted with fine dry salt that has been warmed—the best way to ensure even absorption—and left in the salting room for two days.
Cream and butter too
Aging begins in a room at 57° F; after five days mold begins to appear and the cheeses develop a fruity, acid aroma similar to that of green apple. Moved to a cold room (45° F) with high humidity (96%), the new cheeses are mixed in with the aged ones, using the same principle as the Solera method of making sherry. Supposedly the old cheeses “raise” the young ones, with the ammonia emitted by aged cheeses hastening the aging of the newer ones. During the aging period the cheeses are turned by hand twice a week for six to eight weeks, until they are ready for market.
The fabrication of Brie de Melun is based on the same principles. A smaller, ten-inch mold is used, and the milk remains on the rennet for 18 hours. It’s more acidic, so the aging is done at a lower temperature and lasts longer—three months before it’s ready. Brie de Melun, a lesser-known cheese, is stronger in flavor and more difficult to find outside the region. The Ferme des Trente Arpents produces other dairy products: Brillat-Savarin, a creamy, mild cheese in which the milk is enriched with butterfat to provide a uniquely unctuous texture; Brie Noir, which ages several months longer, changing color and texture; Coulommiers, a raw-milk fermier cheese; Délice de Favières, with truffles; Brie de Provins; Merle Rouge, a fermier tomme rubbed with sediment from the family’s Bordeaux wines. There’s also a crème fraîche so thick a spoon stands up in it, and beurre de baratte—churned butter so good that a slice of bread really calls for a half-inch layer.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of France Today