01.14.10

Why We Love Stinky Cheese

How come we trust, and even enjoy, cheese that smells like body odor? Stacey Slate on five things you didn’t know about your favorite washed-rind cheeses.

There is only a slight difference in aroma between B.epidermis, the bacteria found on cloistered regions of the human body, and Brevibacterium linens, found on the skin of a washed-rind cheese. Why do we trust, and further enjoy, a cheese that smells like body odor? For enthusiasts of this type of cheese, its bodily odor activates our “cheese pheromones.” So says Murray’s Cheese expert Taylor Cocalis, who says our attraction to stinky cheeses reflects part of our human nature. Our olfactory systems have long regarded pungency as not just innocuous but in fact pleasing. And although a certain washed-rind variety is actually banned from France’s public transportation due to its commanding aroma, most are fondly known for more than just their smelly surfaces.

1. The World of Rind Cheeses
All aged cheeses have a solid rind, but the difference between a soft-rind cheese and a washed-rind cheese is in the ripening method. A washed-rind cheese matures from bacterial colonization on its surface, whereas a soft-ripened cheese, like brie, is cultivated using molding techniques. Instead of smearing its surface with B.linens, cheese makers apply a white mold to its surface, which ripens the cheese from the surface to the center. The resulting rind is pale in color but thicker and fluffier than a washed rind. The aroma of a soft-ripened cheese is also less pungent than that of a washed-rind cheese, but these cheeses can still have an ammoniated odor with earth tones and hints of mushroom.

A certain washed-rind variety is actually banned from France’s public transportation due to its commanding aroma.

2. The Chemistry of Taste
Unlike blue-veined cheeses, which ripen from moldy interiors, washed-rind cheeses ripen from the outside in. As B.linens colonize the surface, their interaction with milk proteins—known as caseins—determines the resulting flavor and consistency. Proteolysis is the process by which enzymes found in B.linens break down the casein and release its component parts: gasses, calcium, water, peptides, and polypeptides. As the proteins deconstruct, they become large chains of amino acids (polypeptides) that further separate into smaller chains (peptides) and free amino acids. Peptides provide a cheese with its distinct flavor, based on the configuration of these amino-acid chains. For a washed-rind variety, the nutty, buttery, woodsy, animally tastes are a result of this intricate chemical process. The other expelled elements from the casein also contribute to flavor and texture. Calcium neutralizes acidity, gasses tend to evaporate or cause holes in cheeses if they are bound within the curd (think Swiss cheese family), and released water creates a wetter, softer, gooier cheese.

3. Pungent Matches
Washed-rind cheese loyalists exist all over the world but the original quesophiles descend from Europe’s colder northern regions. These cheeses are particularly popular in the north of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and northern Italy, but Americans are also becoming increasingly curious about the stink. Cocalis recommends three cheese pairings for interested noses and palates.

“Beauty and the Beast” pairing: Pungency is contrasted with sweetness to accentuate the taste spectrum. Try a manly washed-rind cheese like the Cato Corner Farm Hooligan with a floral, sweet wine like a Riesling or Gewurtztraminer.

“Matched intensities” pairing: The stinkiest washed rind cheese and a full-bodied wine compete with equal potencies. Challenge your senses with the smelliest washed-rind cheese, Epoisses, and a full-bodied red wine like Gevrey Chambertin.

Don’t be afraid to get “funky” with your pairings: This combination focuses on piquancy and chemical interaction. An Alpine cheese in the Swiss family is made holey by trapped carbon dioxide, though its flavor is mellow and nutty. Try a Comte Saint Antoine alongside an oxidized wine like Etoile Chardonnay or a slightly sour, spontaneously fermented Lambic.

4. Eat, Sleep, Pray, Make Cheese
Seaside monks in the northern region of France are said to be the first devoted makers of washed-rind cheeses. “A cheese-making monk,” explains Cocalis, “would do four things in life: sleep, eat, pray and make cheese.” While farmers made cheese as an afterthought to make use of surplus milk, monks focused on bringing a range of lactic products to market. A cheese-making monk could collect a fair amount of fresh milk from a cow-herding monk and immediately process the milk into curds and whey by adding enzymes called rennet, a curdling agent naturally found in the stomachs of young cows and sheep. The resulting low-acid cheese mixture needed to be washed with a high-acid solution to prevent bad molds and bacteria from forming. Alcoholic beverages were often more sanitary than saltwater solutions, so monks used spirits for brining. The combination of humidity, salt, and low acidity promoted the growth of healthy bacteria known as Brevibacterium linens, or B.linens, which in turn created an orange hue specific to this kind of cheese as well as striking, bodily aromas.

Nowadays, a cheese maker literally wipes the cheese’s surface with a briny cheesecloth, or soaks the cheese in a salt solution to encourage the growth of B.linens. Certain washed-rind cheeses ripen in just weeks, others over the span of a few years. During production, this washing procedure is repeated to keep the surface of the cheese moist and hospitable to bacterial growth. Cheese makers also often add cultures or lactic acid to their milk to keep it from spoiling during fermentation.

5. Putting Taste into Words
There are many adjectives cheese mongers use to define the particular tastes and smells of washed-rind cheeses. Cocalis describes the washed-rind stink factor as ranging from “barnyardy to mushroomy,” “pungent to gaseous,” and the flavors as nutty, bacony and fruity. Some well-known varieties of washed-rind cheeses are Taleggio, Epoisses, Limburger, Vacherin Mont d’Or, and there are lesser-known kinds recognized and respected for their great distinction. Edwin’s Munster is praised for its “animally” odor, the Von Trapp Oma for its buttery taste and woodsy aroma. Other washed-rind cheeses Cocalis recommends are Dancing Cow Sarabande, Jasper Hill Farm Winnemere, and Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson. Although there is no direct correlation between odor and flavor, brighter orange hues and a stickier surface can often mean that the cheese will be stinkier. “Flavor,” Cocalis notes, “is much more dependent on proteolysis, or the breakdown of proteins,” than mere appearance.

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Stacey Slate is a food writer in New York City. She has contributed to Mark Bittman's New York Times blog, Bitten, and is also a writer for Civil Eats and a new print publication, Remedy Quarterly.