Far from his home in Normandy, Francois Capt, a fourth generation cheese maker, continues the traditions handed down to him from his family. Capt, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather specialized in making Comté, a French cheese first made in the 1100s, brought the skills of crafting French cheese to Benton Harbor, Michigan, and in the process has won numerous awards including taking both first for their double cream Reny Picot Brie and third place for a triple cream Brie at the 2011 United States Championship Cheese Contest held last summer.
Their Camembert has also frequently been featured in the Williams-Sonoma Christmas catalogue with the following description, "Experts in the aging and ripening of cheeses at New York's Artisanal Premium Cheese Center have searched England, France and the United States to bring you classic cheeses of superb quality . . . American Camembert, made by hand in Michigan by Francois Capt, is soft and mild, recalling true Camembert from Normandy. Creamy and buttery, with a hint of wild mushrooms."
But now Capt, a master cheesemaker and general manager of Old Europe who oversees the production of six million pounds of cheese a year—Old Europe's list of products also includes Gouda, Edam, Fontina, a naturally smoked Gouda, a hard cured Edam called Picotina, Spanish Bleufort and Manchego—is taking on a new challenge: the recent introduction of Brie en Croute (Brie wrapped in puff pastry) to the company's line of products.
"We'd been supplying our cheese to companies that make baked Brie for fifteen years," says Capt, noting the two biggest producers of baked Brie recently stopped making it. "For many years I had thought about making some and I even had made some here. My problem was when you do bakery—the making of a French brioche dough—it's different than dairy and you need the best ingredients. You can save some money by not doing the best, but we don't do that here."
For those who've tried to make their own Brie en croute at home and had it turn into a runny, rather oily mess, there's a reason. "We make a special Brie for the rich dough," Capt says. "We use less fat and it's a different process that's adapted to the cooking. The cheese is very smooth, it stays together and doesn't run and there's no oil."
In the shiny new bakery (the term Capt uses to describe the large kitchen where they make their baked Brie) milk, eggs and flour are blended in mixers large enough to hold 500 pounds per batch and then placed in the cooler to rise overnight. Next it's run through a dough sheeter that, in the same way that croissants are made, folds it, adding layers of butter after each fold, creating a rich and delicate pastry.
Bakers Zach Heth and Maria Sanchez then encase each Brie round in the pastry, a time consuming hands-on process, before brushing the tops with eggs. Next, the trays of Brie en Croute go into a high humidity proofer where it rises again. After the final rising, the Brie is baked until the pastry turns golden brown.
"We want to give it a shelf life of sixty days," Capt says. "So we pack it without oxygen so it doesn't mold."
To keep up with the burgeoning demand, the bakery is capable of turning out 1,000 pounds of baked Brie every day.
Because Old Europe likes to use milk from local farmers in their cheese making, it's a natural fit for one of the two varieties of baked Brie they're currently making to use cranberries, once a major crop in Southwest Michigan and still harvested commercially in some areas. So it made sense to add cranberries along with apricots and almonds as a topping to the Brie before enfolding it in pastry dough. The other baked Brie is the classic style Brie en Croute.
Capt has always been an innovator. Several years ago, his father, Bernard, also a master cheese maker, traveled to Benton Harbor from his home in Normandy, to help his son craft a farm-style Normandy Camembert Fermier using French cheese making traditions. They also created a Carre St. Joseph, a wash rind cheese whose origins date back to the 12th century.
"My goal is to make a cheese with a more intense taste," says Capt, explaining why despite his busy days he experiments with small batches of cheese. "I started to make small batches of cheese with 70 percent butter fat. But it is a dilemma. On one hand, I can sell hundreds of pounds of Gouda. The specialty cheese I can sell ten to twenty cases. I like to do it, but it's the time. With cheese you have to be there all the time to follow the cheese."
Always looking for innovations, Capt decided to capture the whey left over from 6.2 million gallons of milk used every year in their cheese making to sell. Now with another addition to what was originally a 50,000-square-foot dairy (it's increased in size and is now over 70,000 square feet), he has the whey condensed to syrup so that it can be sold.
"We ship three tanks a week filled with 40,000 pounds of whey," says Scott Ness, production and planning manager at Old Europe.
Old Europe Cheese's parent company is Reny Picot, the brand name of Industrias Lacteas Asturianas (ILAS, S.A.), an international company based in Spain that specializes in dairy products. Benton Harbor is their only cheese plant in the U.S.
And though one might think this a cheddar and Colby sort of area, the success of Old Europe Cheese since they took over an abandoned dairy almost 25 years ago, has been phenomenal, with growth often averaging 10 percent a year. Their products are sold nationwide and often as private labels for big companies such as Sam's Club, Whole Foods, Safeway and Meijer. It's also carried under the name Reny Picot in many area stores.
Capt, who was part of the team assigned to launch Reny Picot in the U.S., chose to specialize in French-style Camembert and Brie. At the time, only two U.S.-based companies were making these cheeses, which often came in metal containers with snap-off tops.
Besides that, growing up in Normandy where Camembert was created, Capt knew the cheese and believed that its mild and buttery taste would appeal to American palates. "I've had little children tell me that they like it because it tastes just like butter," he says, adding, "All this started off as an adventure and it still is today."
The following recipes are from the website for Old Europe Cheese, oldeuropecheese.com.
1 (8 ounces) Reny Picot Brie
1 beaten egg
1 package puff-pastry sheets
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. After thawing, roll out one sheet of puff pastry to 1/8-inch thickness and place the Brie wheel in the center of the puff pastry. Wrap dough over wheel, sealing completely by crimping edges together. Brush top and sides with beaten egg for a glossy finish. Bake 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
Let stand 20 minutes before serving. Cut small wedges from the wheel and serve with plain crackers.
Makes 6 servings.
2.2 pounds Reny Picot Brie
12 ounces Reny Picot Bleufort
2/3 cup peach chutney or apricot preserves
1/4 cup pecans
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Freeze Brie 30 minutes on a serving platter. With a sharp knife, cut Brie in half horizontally. Place Bleufort on a microwave-safe plate.
Heat in a microwave oven on low (10 percent power) for 1 to 2 minutes, until spreadable.
Spread Bleufort onto one half of Brie and top with second piece of Brie. Return layered Brie to freezer for 30 minutes. With a sharp knife, cut off and discard top rind of Brie.
In a small bowl, heat chutney or preserves in microwave oven on high 1 minute. Spread evenly on Brie. Top with almonds and pecans. Cover loosely and chill.
To serve, heat in microwave on low for 2 to 3 minutes, until Brie is softened, rotating dish twice. Serve with fruit or crackers.
Pepper Brie and Broccoli Flan
Store-bought or handmade pastry dough
6 to 8 ounces broccoli
3 tablespoons half-and-half
6 ounces Reny Picot Pepper Brie, rind removed
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry dough and use it to line a 9-inch flan pan. Prick base with a fork, and refrigerate 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook broccoli in boiling salted water 5 minutes, drain thoroughly and chop coarsely. Set aside.
Cut cheese into pieces and put in the top section of a double boiler set over simmering water. Heat gently until melted. Remove from heat. Beat together half and half and eggs, then blend into melted cheese. Stir in parsley and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Arrange broccoli in pastry shell, pour cheese mixture over broccoli and bake in oven 30 to 40 minutes, or until lightly browned and a knife inserted off center comes out clean.
Serve warm with a salad.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Note: If using store-bought pastry, follow manufacturer's directions.