For cheese lovers, brie leads the whey.
You could say it's the head cheese, because of its many claims to nobility.
They go back for centuries. According to "Larouse Gastronomique," the foodies' bible, Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 800 to 814, ate it at the priory of Rueil-en-Brie, and Philip Augustus, king of France from 1180 to 1223, offered it to the ladies of his court.
Charles of Orleans sang a madrigal about brie. The poet Saint- Amant penned an ode to it, declaring, "Cheese, you are worth your weight in gold!"
Conde the Great, the French general who made his name during the 30 Years' War, had it served to celebrate his decisive victory over the Spanish at Rocroi in 1643.
But brie's most exalted moment came during the Congress of Vienna, the conference of major powers held in 1814 and 1815 to decide the fate of European countries following Napoleon's Waterloo.
Talleyrand, the French diplomat whose masterly maneuvering allowed a defeated France to maintain its status as a European power, spoke up for brie as well, having it proclaimed "king of cheese" during a dinner organized by the congress.
His championing of brie was partly motivated as revenge on Metternich, the Austrian statesman, who earlier had Sacher torte named the "king of cakes." Still, the cheese's title was deserved; of 52 cheeses served at the dinner, guests voted a brie as the best.
The cow's milk cheese originated in the Ile-de-France, a region surrounding Paris. It is light yellow to gold in color and is covered with a white crust that often has red tints.
When ripe, the crust should be springy to the touch. The cheese should be creamy, not runny, and have a delicate flavor.
French brie is usually sold in portions shaped like a slice of pie, which are cut from large wheels. The French serve it toward the end of the meal, but it is also used in some dishes and is suitable as a canape.
Many restaurants offer brie as an appetizer, usually wrapped in phyllo or pastry and baked or deep fried. Following is a noble treatment from Dallas chef John Lopopolo, who dispenses with the wrappings, simply grilling it after spreading it with pesto and serving it with toast infused with more pesto.
The result is voluptuous. Even those diners who usually bypass the brie crust find it as delicious as the molten core. Because rounds of French bries are not made in small sizes, Mr. Lopopolo uses a Danish brie. Francophiles could substitute small rounds of Camembert.
Grilled brie with pesto and Tuscany toast
1 cup chopped fresh basil
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
2 baguettes, sliced into 1/4 -inch-thick rounds
1 ounce sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
2 Danish brie cheeses, each 4 1/2 ounces
fresh fruit for garnish
Place basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil in a food processor and puree until you achieve a thick paste. Place the baguette slices on cookie sheets and top with pesto, reserving about 1/4 cup. Sprinkle with sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan, and bake in a 400-degree oven for 8 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.
Using the reserved pesto, brush the brie cheese on both sides, then lightly grill on both sides. (If a grill is unavailable, place in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes.) The cheese should be warm and soft to the touch.
Arrange the Tuscany toast on a small serving plate and place the grilled brie in the center. Garnish with fresh fruit as desired.