These are the stinky cheeses.
Sure, just about every cheese has a particular scent – whether it be of perfume or body odor is usually in the nose of the beholder – but it’s the washed-rind cheeses that are particularly potent with regards to the olfactory sense. Limburger is legendary for its scent; Stinking Bishop speaks for itself. From smooth and silky to slightly firm and unctuous, these cheeses are made throughout the world, and while some are more odoriferous than others, they pass the lips of cheese lovers everywhere – including Scardello Artisan Cheese owner Rich Rogers, who counts many of these cheeses among his very favorite.
Thanks for the time, Rich. To begin, what exactly does it mean when a cheese has a washed rind?
It’s a treatment that’s done after the cheese is made. And it is what it says it is; it’s literally washing or rubbing the rind, typically with a brine solution that sometimes has a form of diluted alcohol added.
What does that practice accomplish?
You’ll notice an orange coloration on the rind of washed-rind cheeses, and that is from a bacteria called Brevibacterium Linens, or B-Linens. The bacteria likes to grow in a moisture-rich environment, and while they have to use salt to keep mold from growing on the outside of the rind, as long as it’s not too much salt the bacteria grow well. It’s the same thing with the alcohol; a high concentration of alcohol will kill off the bacteria, and that’s why it’s diluted.
So what the bacteria does, is it excretes an enzyme that goes down and eats through the cheese and it helps develop a lot of really interesting flavors. The bacteria on the outside react with the outside environment and create some very interesting and powerful aromas.
But washed rind cheeses don’t typically taste the way that they smell. If they did, very few people would eat them. So it’s kind of crazy that you can have this very pungent cheese and a lot of times have a fairly mild flavor.
So are there typical characteristics that this process imparts to the cheese?
Well, there are two styles of wash-rind cheese. There are the small format, wash-rind cheeses, which are typically your gooier ones. One of the most famous would be Tallegio, and that’s kind of a milder wash rind. Then we’ve got things like Epoisses, which is one of my all-time favorites.
Then the other style is the large-format mountain cheeses. Here you’d find things that a lot of people would be familiar with; Gruyere, Comte, Raclette, Fontina Val D’Aosta. Those are all mountain-style, washed-rind cheeses; they’re rubbed and brushed with brine, and sometimes there’s some sort of wine added to the brine mixture.
With those cheeses, sometimes they can have a really pungent smell at the rind, but typically a lot of them lean more towards the nuttier, fruitier flavors. That’s partially because of the size, and also because they’re cooked and pressed and that changes the flavor – whereas a lot of times the small-formats are made like a brie, where they have large curd that they gently scoop into a form and let it set.
Who came up with the idea of washing the rind?
It’s believed that these cheeses were created in monasteries. Now, whether they were created there or not, the reason that we have them today is because of St. Benedict and the monasteries that he created – the Benedictine monks kept those recipes alive during the Dark Ages. In monastic life, you basically had a monk that was in charge of a specific job. You had a farmer monk, a bee keeper monk, a beer making monk, a cheese making monk and so on – they just did these tasks in service to God. And the thought is that they were making a brie-style cheese and some weird molds got on the outside, and they probably washed it with beer. And the conditions must have been right.
So if someone comes in and says they want to try one, but they’ve never had a washed-rind cheese before, where are you going to steer them?
Taleggio is a great introduction, because it’s fairly mild, and it’s not terribly smelly. The texture on it is great; it’s not too gooey. You know, sometimes someone has issues with a cheese texturally, and sometimes they can have issues with the smell. Some washed-rind cheeses are an acquired taste; it’s not something that the very first time you taste it you go, ‘I love this kind of cheese.’ Over time, though, it doesn’t take very long to get into it. They’re really a lot of fun and I think it’s most of my staff members’ favorite style of cheese. They didn’t start out that way. I think I was the only person that started here that thought ‘this is for me.’ Really, for me, if it smells like dirty old boots or a gym sock I’m going to be really excited.