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Really Stinky Cheese - PART I

photo by John Rockwell

A visit to Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens is an idyllic gastropub experience, whether you’re visiting the Escondido location or Liberty Station—though at San Diego’s Liberty Station, conversations in the beer garden may be occasionally squelched by airport traffic. The Escondido location was a stop on a recent brewery tour, and of course in my ongoing quest for trying cheese, I was thrilled to see a regular appetizer selection named “The Really Stinky Cheese Plate.” Its description is tantalizing: “A selection of intensely odiferous cheeses, fruit and marmalade with barley cracker bread.”

The cheeses on this plate vary by season, but in March, I had a Shropshire blue, a goat Brie, and two semi-hard cheeses: one goat’s milk, and one cow’s milk. I remember thinking to myself, ‘there’s nothing really stinky on this platter,’ but chalked it up to my newfound exuberance and high tolerance for all things cheese-related. Nobody around me complained about the odor, but they were more busy sampling beer than paying attention to this excellent food offering. Stone’s “stinky” cheese platter caused a conundrum for me because I wanted to be able to define and understand what causes that sense profile in cheeses. I don’t define blue cheeses as “stinky”—pungent, maybe, but that is a result of the sharp and sour flavors I find in blues (when this cheese is made, the milk is often ripened to a sour state before adding rennet). And even though I know there are endless variations of Brie, I definitely do not categorize them as “stinky”—although, a good one is always welcome on my plate.

I began to read about and seek out “stinky” cheeses, and found out that there is a special bacteria that contributes to an amazing aroma unceremoniously labeled as “foot odor”—probably, because as it turns out, Brevibacterium linens is partially responsible for what we perceive as foot odor. In the cheesemaking process, the same bacteria can be added to the milk before rennet is added, sprayed onto finished cheese rounds during the aging process (sometimes called smear-ripened), or developed as rinds are “washed” with a brine that inhibits white molds like P. candidum. B. linens can be used for soft cheeses, which is the focus of this piece, as well as varieties of semi-hard cheeses, especially popular in Switzerland, like Red Witch or Challerhocker. Much to my surprise, I was already a repeat customer of a soft B. linens cheese, the famous Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery. According to legend, Red Hawk was created by accident when some of their Mt. Tam Triple Creme was exposed to B. linens. Believing the cheese ruined, it was stored, and when tasted later, an award-winning cheese was born. Depending on the ripeness of this cheese, the odor can be quite strong, but the pleasing mild yeasty flavor makes its bark worse than its bite. It is an ideal “stinky” cheese for beginners. 

Now that I knew what to look for, I began to hound stinky cheese at the recently installed Whole Foods Market in Brea. In Southern California, it is difficult to find a round selection of international artisan cheese. Whole Foods is one chain that can always be counted on for an excellent selection, though the varieties will differ from location to location and season to season. Some Ralphs Supermarkets have made a deal with Murray’s Cheese Shop (located on the Lower West Side of Manhattan), and if you can find a Ralphs with a Murray’s kiosk (Marina Del Rey, Long Beach or Beverly Hills are three), you are going to find some unique varieties. For “thrifty” shoppers, both Whole Foods and Murray’s have a nice “leftover cutting” basket at each store that has small chunks of more expensive cheese, so while at Whole Foods, I grabbed some Epoisses, because I noticed the requisite reddish, B. linens-stained rind. When I got it home and opened it, it was overripe and the odor was so overpowering, my family cleared the room. But when I tasted it, I was amazed. Meaty and yeasty, I knew I had found something great. On subsequent trips to cheese counters, and knowing what to look for, I now noticed countless varieties of “stinky cheese” and made it my goal to try as many as possible.

It turns out that  soft washed-rind/smear-ripened cheese is not a product of France alone, though it certainly does seem to have the corner on the market with Epoisses, Pont l’eveque, Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie and Munster Mon Sire (if you buy them in the US, they are produced in versions using pasteurized milk especially for our food laws). Over the course of the past couple of months, I have tried more than fifteen different variations of soft, smear-ripened cheeses that favor the wild, odiferous, salty, and often meaty, mushroomy, yeasty, and bready B. linens strain. In Italy, there is Taleggio and Rosso di Langa; in Germany, there is the lunchable rectangular Limburger; in the United States, Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont seems to have the corner on the market producing stinky and runny gems like Winnimere, Willoughby and Harbison. Vermont Creamery, which specializes in goat’s milk and mixed mild soft cheeses has an amazing washed rind goat and cow’s milk cheese called Cremont. If you ever get the chance to try some Oma from VonTrapp (Vermont) or Good Thunder  from Alemar Cheese Company (Minnesota), you are in for a special treat. In fact, next to the Epoisses, Oma and Good Thunder were, to my taste, the most distinctly stinky and flavor-balanced cheeses on this list.

Look for Part II of this story in the May issue.

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