Avoiding those smelly cheeses? Stop. It's time to be brave with your cheese choices; the gold is in the funk. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Cara Condon
In an unscientific, and perhaps accidental, study recently completed in my office kitchen, I witnessed firsthand how overwhelming the smell of washed rind cheeses can be.
The Sex Panther cologne scene from Anchorman was basically playing out in front of me. It was all my fault, and everyone was screaming. And yeah, I get it. Washed rinds can have a strong aroma. But guess what? If you can get past a bit of that funk, they’re delicious.
Okay, fine. Sorry to all the folks in the office. Let’s learn a little more about that funk.
What exactly are washed rind cheeses? They are a whole category of cheeses that, during their aging process, get brushed or washed in a saltwater solution or other brine, sometimes even liquor or beer. The wash encourages the growth of a certain type of bacteria, most commonly Brevibacterium linens, but, as it turns out, there are a slew of bacteria that lend a hand. This “wash” is also what gives washed rind cheeses a bright orange exterior (the rind) and meaty, funky flavors. These are the real stinkers in any cheese case.
The aroma can slap them with a bad-boy image, but once you get to know these cheeses, you realize they are just big ole softies—literally. These cheeses tend to have a high moisture content and are very soft and sometimes even spoonable. Without slipping down a nerdy slope, it’s important to note that some hard cheeses—raclette, Gruyère, and other Swiss types—also get their rinds “washed” throughout their aging process. The texture of these cheeses tends to be firmer, so they have a lower moisture content, which makes the bacteria behave differently. Some of the barnyardy notes are less pronounced, but the wash still produces delicious, desired flavors. In most cases (and for the sake of this article), when people refer to “washed rind cheeses,” they are usually talking about the softies of monastic origin.
It would have been cool to be a monk back in the day. Sure, they had tons of praying to do, but not much else. One of the goals of a monastery was to be self-sufficient, so cooking and growing their own food was very important. And remember, this was long before anyone could trust that water was safe to consume (it could kill you!). Beer provided a safe drinking source, and in the case of many monks, it also helped support the monastery. We have monks to thank for many great Trappist beers, including Orval and Westvleteren.
How did they get into making cheese? Well, monasteries usually owned lots of land, primarily due to the church and its patrons. Back then, rich people would endow their land to the church, so over the years, monks acquired tons of land, meaning they had plenty of room for farm animals.
A few animals begets a lot of animals, right? Having too many cows, sheep, and goats also means you have an abundance of milk. Plus, they had that strict monk schedule, waking up really early to pray and do chores, and then having all of these blocks of free time. Cheesemaking was a perfect task, and since they had dedicated time for it, they did it differently than the frazzled homesteader who was busy making bloomy-rind types of cheeses. These small differences may seem inconsequential, but they are what created a new and distinct family of cheeses.
WASHIES VERSUS BLOOMIES
Since we are getting a little dorky...here’s another cool fact of animal husbandry: Those animals needed to be milked twice a day, in the morning and at night. Cheesemakers on a small family farm would “pool” milk from multiple milkings to make their cheeses; however, monasteries had enough milk to make cheese immediately after milking. It is a strange, but quite significant, detail. As a result of not sitting around for hours, the milk the monks were using to make cheese did not begin to acidify before the cheesemaking process, and it retained its sweetness.
That lower milk acidity allowed different yeast and bacteria strains to move in, namely B. linens and the cast of funky boys. It’s also why the wheels would get a brine bath, to both discourage harmful bacteria growth and “feed” the good bacteria. Since there was usually no shortage of beer around, sometimes beer was included in the brine as well. It’s more complicated than saying this is how the two styles diverged, but for the purposes of one paragraph on the history of cheesemaking, it’s a start. BTW, if you like this kind of talk, you’re gonna love Paul Kindstedt’s book, Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization.
If you’re still kinda weirded out by any food that is considered “stinky,” that’s okay. Start with a piece of Taleggio—it’s a great introduction. The Italian cow’s milk cheese has some of the category’s characteristic hammy aromas, but the paste (the inside goopy part) is pure sweet cream and fresh dough. Smothered on bread with roasted tomato tapenade, Taleggio will surely change your mind about stinky cheeses. Once you’ve mastered this one, you’ll be ready for the harder (read: stinkier) stuff.
Keep in mind: Pairings can help balance some of the more abrasive flavors in a “stinky” cheese. Trappist and similar Belgian-style beers are an easy and obvious pairing. These cheeses can be relatively intense, so don’t be afraid of selecting a bigger beer to stand up to that intensity. Look for those that are on the malty side, perhaps a Belgian-style ale fermented with wild Brettanomyces yeast, like Goose Island Matilda, or one with notes of dark fruits or chocolate, like Allagash Dubbel.
If you love wine, try whites with some residual sugar, which will offer a subtle sweetness for balance. Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner are the classic options. If you’re feeling a little sassy, get a little wild and experiment with some slightly earthy, light-bodied natural wines.
Mustard and pickles, with their biting acidity, work really well to cut through some of the heaviness. A drizzle of honey can go a long way to soften some of the intensity of these cheeses. I like a dark honey, like buckwheat. Rye breads, pretzels, pickled red onions, and cured meats are all welcome guests at a stinky-cheese party.
SOME OF MY FAVORITES
Another elegant take on Reblochon is Dancing Fern from Tennessee. Silky smooth when ripe, this restrained raw-milk stunner has notes of earthy mushrooms and toasted walnuts with just a touch of that slight barny aroma. Sequatchie Cove is a tiny creamery that sells its cheeses mainly at regional markets, but it’s worth tracking down (check igourmet.com). $40 for 17 ounces
A widely available cheese, Taleggio is the perfect introduction to the world of funk. The Italian cow’s milk cheese gets its name from the valley where it's made, Val Taleggio. As a name-protected cheese (one of the many food products protected by laws to maintain its historical integrity), Taleggio will have the letters D.O.P on the label TO ensure its quality. $12 to $18 for 16 ounces, murrayscheese.com/taleggio
ÉPOISSES DE BOURGOGNE
The “pig pen” of smelly cheeses, Époisses de Bourgogne is super lovable but has quite the aroma—so much so that it is illegal to take on the French Metro system. Look for those by M. Berthaut, the producer that revived this cheese from near extinction in the 1950s. The stink bomb is packaged in an adorable wooden box because it’s so crazy soft and delicate. Be patient and bring the cheese to room temperature, then just start dunking bread into it. It reminds me of hammy frosting—something you’ve never thought you’d love, but I bet you will. $27 for 8 ounces, murrayscheese.com
Northeast Minneapolis, Minnesota
Cheesemaker Keith Adam’s nod to Reblochon, the French classic that’s illegal in the US, Good Thunder is washed for several weeks in Minneapolis-based Surly Brewing Company’s oatmeal stout (another nod to those monks who invented washed rind cheeses). This beer-soaked, organic cow’s milk cheese is a lovely little stinker, with notes of beef broth, and it just gets stronger and softer as it ages. $11 for 7 ounces
RUSH CREEK RESERVE
If you’re into rare and hard-to-find beers, this is definitely the cheese for you. Rush Creek is inspired by Vacherin Mont D’or and made by Andy Hatch, the esteemed cheesemaker behind Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of the most award-winning American cheeses. Hatch makes this cheese for only a few months every fall, when his cows transition from munching on grass to hay, which results in a richer milk. The tiny wheel is wrapped in spruce bark, which lends a woodsiness to the smoky bacon notes. Pop the top rind off and instantly you’ve got the most amazing and easiest fondue. It’s a dream, but you’ll have to be patient; Rush Creek isn’t released until the late fall. $35 for 12 ounces
Waitsfield & Greensboro Bend, Vermont
An approachable “next step” after Taleggio, Oma is a collaboration between the Von Trapp family, which produces the cheese using organic cow’s milk from their Jerseys, and the Cellars at Jasper Hill (responsible for some of the most exciting cheeses being produced in the US), where it’s aged for two to three months and regularly washed with brine. The texture is squidgy and slightly doughy, with a balanced stone-fruit sweetness and a bit of meatiness. Available nationwide, Oma is still an extremely limited-production cheese. $18 for 8 ounces
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