Emily Monaco | 3.20.2015 | Issue #13
“Want to try something new?” In France, never turn down an offer like that, especially when it comes from a fromager.
He shaves off a small curl of cheese and passes it over. When you begin to chew, he shakes his head non, and places a piece between his own lips to illustrate. “Suck on it,” he says. “Like a candy.” A familiar flavor is lying somewhere within the crumbly, Parmesan-like texture. The small chunk melts until there’s nothing but lingering tendrils of umami.
In 1914, France is at war. 18-year-old boys are in the trenches on the Western Front, standing side-by-side with countrymen that seem of another world; the foreign sounds of someone else’s patois rings in their ears. Links to home are tenuous at best, so food becomes an integral part of life on the front. A slapdash sandwich assembled on an ammunition case, or a meal during a few moments of normalcy snatched in some village bistro carries more weight than it ever did before. The French army supplies a monotonous diet of canned beans and canned meat (a corned beef lookalike, which the soldiers refer to as “singes,” or monkeys), but it’s the regional specialties that help them remember who they are.
In Franche Comté, for example, runny Cancoillotte cheese was manufactured and stored not in glass jars, as was the custom, but in metal cans so that soldiers could have it in the trenches. The families of young Briards more than likely included the one thing that existed in Brie and nowhere else: Brie noir, or black brie.
“Soldiers’ families couldn’t send fresh Brie, but they could have sent Brie noir. Why not?” says Georges Carantino, a historian and food ethnologist based in Paris. With its petrified texture, the dried cheese could easily have been slipped into rucksacks and carried for days.
Brie noir is a purely local innovation. Tossing out misshapen cheeses that were too small, too large, cracked or fissured—making them unworthy of AOC status needed to sell—would have been unimaginable. Instead, these misfits were wrapped in paper and aged in attics, slowly losing their moisture until they became crumbly. While the creamy, luxurious wheels were sent to markets all over the country, Brie noir became a local favorite; a sort of devil’s cut of the cheese world.
Fromagerie Ganot, a brother-sister team operating not far from Meaux, is home to some of the only affineurs still continuing to produce the cheese. The Ganots have been in this business for five generations, steadfast in their determination to preserve this specialty—even when it became partially illegal, during the early days of unified Europe. After years of locals cultivating Brie noir at home, “we were allowed to dry it,” Stéphane Ganot explains, “but not to age it.” Cheesemakers in Brie were prohibited from aging their product with the direct intention of making Brie noir, but were allowed to dry already AOC-certified cheeses that were past their prime for selling. Brie noir was acceptable as a byproduct, but not as an independent cheese. It’s enough of a loophole to continue selling it in small quantities.
In two underground cellars on the Ganot's property, wheels of cheese are slowly and carefully nudged into AOC territory on pine shelves. In order to pass inspection, each cheese must weigh between 2.8 and 3.2 kilograms. Those destined for Brie noir production undergo a second, longer drying period, anywhere from eight months to a year, in the third and final cave on the property. The entrance is buried behind a staircase, a remnant of stealthier times.
Brie noir is not easygoing. Locals use the blade of a knife to scratch off the dry, grey dust that coats the cheese, and typically enjoy it alongside their morning coffee. Stéphane likes to serve it with something sweet: a fig jam, maybe. It’s become one of many regional specialties throughout the country to be muddled by time and globalization, and still rare enough that young Briards today have likely never tasted it. The Ganots keep the tradition alive for tradition's sake, and it’s enjoyed more as a nod to history than out of necessity. People come to them to find it because they always have, and so they continue.
Today, in Paris, you can easily find bouillabaisse from Marseille, beef stew from Burgundy, or crêpes from Brittany. Brie noir, which never traditionally graced the markets of the capital, is now popping up in fromager stalls, sometimes even selling for more than its AOC cousin. It's unheard of in the entire history of the cheese, and the current trend amongst bobos—Paris’ answer to hipsters—may be the cause. Just as with the picklers and preservers of Brooklyn, young Parisians reach for anything that speaks to a humbler existence, sparking a resurgence of products like artisan bread, homemade jam, and even “secondary” cheeses. It’s not embraced with the same intention, and not nearly with the same character, though; Brie noir became a part of the lives of those who knew it because they couldn't afford the higher-quality cheeses destined for Paris. “People might start to produce it now, but it’ll have nothing in common with the Brie noir wrapped in newsprint and forgotten on top of an armoire,” Carantino says. He hesitates to call it a full-blown adoption of the style. “The fantasy of Brie isn’t Brie noir,” he says. “That’s not the image you have of Brie abroad.”
He may be right: not many in the American cheese community have even heard of the cheese, and those who have are skeptical. Jack Morgan of Downtown Cheese Shop in Philadelphia? Tried it once, 35 years ago, and doesn’t remember it fondly. He doubts American taste buds would embrace it. That is, if they even got the chance: Jessica Beer, a cheesemonger in Boulder, has never seen it on an order guide. Even Keith Ada, founder of a Minnesotan company producing Brie-style cheeses stateside, says not only does he think there’s no demand, there’s not remotely enough cellar space to consider it.
But Brie noir has never been about demand. It’s mythic, and scrappy, and it means home. And perhaps, to a soldier on the Front in 1914, that’s all that mattered.