The perfume of cheese
- Monday 7 December 2009
If you’re about to do your cheese-shopping for Christmas, think carefully about how you’re going to transport it. In researching a book on cheese, I bought a few cheeses I hadn’t previously tried, but none more pungent than Carré de l’Est.
Walking down Piccadilly five minutes after buying it at London cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield I was conscious of a faint aroma. By the time I boarded the train to Bristol I was attracting strange looks and, despite triple-wrapping it in paper and sealing it in a plastic box, its smell permeated the fridge to such an extent that my husband begged me to remove it.
Why do we love stinky cheese? Does a stronger aroma signal a more serious, profound taste? Is its nose to be savoured, as with wine? And where does the smell come from – is imbuing a cheese with a strong scent an art cheesemakers aspire to?
A cheese’s bark is much worse than its bite. Most washed-rind cheeses – those
odour eatersthat mainly boast pungent aromas – have an extraordinary depth of flavour, but one that doesn’t taste nearly as unappealing as the smell. ‘The character that comes out is mainly a savoury one, an umami or Marmite note that is delicious,’ says Richard Veal at La Fromagerie in London. Some I’ve found taste sweet, almost fruity. They also develop a particularly seductive, flowing texture that becomes progressively more voluptuous with age.
The magic of mould
The farmyardy, smelly sock aroma of this style of cheese results from the fact that the rind is washed or rubbed with a liquid or solution that ranges from simple salt water to wine, beer, cider, marc and eau de vie. This promotes the growth of Brevibacterium linens, which gives the rinds of washed-rind cheeses their characteristic colours – most commonly bright orange, pink or brown – and pungent smell.
The UK’s main contribution to the genre is Stinking Bishop, voted Britain’s Smelliest Cheese 2009, and described as ‘smelling like a rugby club changing room’ (see box opposite). It is washed in perry and named after the pears that grow on the farm of its producer, Charles Martell. Its success has been exponential, much to his bemusement. ‘When we named it we were worried that our cheese would be bought by some nice lady looking for a piece of cheddar and she’d report us to the environmental health inspector. And we also wanted to tell the people who would kill for a smelly cheese that this was for them. But we never expected this level of interest.’
The odour and texture develops as the cheese ages. ‘We get Stinking Bishop when it’s about five weeks old and mature it up to eight weeks,’ says Ruaridh Buchanan of Paxton & Whitfield. ‘That’s for eating this weekend,’ he says, pointing to a sample that is threatening to ooze out of its packaging. The cheese has a Royal fan in the Prince of Wales, who has awarded it his personal warrant.
Most washed-rind cheeses date back several centuries to monasteries where monks would make their own beer, cider or liqueurs. ‘People would use whatever local drink was in abundance,’ says Buchanan. ‘Langres, for example, is washed with marc de Champagne, a by-product of Champagne production.’ In general, the stronger the drink, the stronger the flavour, adds Veal. The intensity also depends on the size of the cheese (smaller ones obviously pick up more flavour) and how, and how often, the liquid is applied. They can be lightly rubbed with a rag, sprayed with a mist, or even submerged in a brine solution.
Temperature is crucial too. ‘Even a 2°C variation in the storage temperature can make a difference to how cheese matures,’ says Buchanan. ‘Washed-rind cheeses have to be kept cool or the cheese will go rotten: usually between 8°C and 12°C, definitely under 15°C.’ It’s also important not to serve them too warm, which will only further the smell and degradation as the fat starts to separate out.
Other factors that will influence a cheese’s pungency are the recipe they’re made to, the milk they’re made from and the climate in which they’re matured. White Lake’s Rachel goats’ cheese from Somerset is quite delicate in flavour, while the sharp, tangy oil- and spice-rubbed Mahón is undoubtedly influenced by the maritime climate of Menorca, where it’s made. Italian Taleggio is brine-washed, so creamier, more like a Brie, while Burgundy’s Epoisses is so strong it’s been banned on French public transport.
Some cheeses can develop B Linens naturally if made by the sea or stored in humid conditions, according to Todd Trethowan of Trethowan’s Dairy. The cheesemaker has just started to make a washed-rind version of his award-winning Gorwydd Caerphilly called GWR. ‘We first started with brine and are now experimenting with cider and with reducing the size of the cheese to accelerate the breakdown of the centre. It certainly adds to the texture and flavour.’
For the dedicated curd nerd, though,the smellier the cheese, the greater the thrill. But the strongly scented aren’t necessarily more esteemed by the cheese cognoscenti. ‘There’s a Marmite effect – those that hate them regard it as inconceivable that anyone should eat something that smells so foul,’ says Matt March-Smith of the aptly named Pong Cheese, which sells British cheeses (not all stinky) online. ‘It’s the cheese world’s equivalent of a chilli hit,’ he says. Or a 15%-alcohol Shiraz, perhaps…