A major influence prompting my interest in cheese was Michael Pollan’s most recent book, Cooked. It’s divided into four chapters, relating to the four natural forces of cooking: fire, water, air and earth. Of the four, the chapter I found most fascinating was earth. In it, Pollan examines the process of fermentation and how it creates so much of the food we love: beer, wine, chocolate and of course, cheese.
The science of fermentation blew my mind! It’s truly a magic show! If the vastness (10 billion microbial cells on a cheese crumb) and the power (communities of microbes determining the aroma, flavor and appearance of cheese) don’t make your jaw drop, then I don’t know what would. Maybe I should have studied microbiology in college.
Pollan focuses on cheeses from the washed rind family, i.e., stinky cheese. He discusses a concept called “The Erotics of Disgust” about which very few publications exist because in 2017, the subject is very new and perhaps a little taboo. He focuses on why stinky cheese is such a divisive food, evoking strong (often negative) reactions from people. After speaking with microbiologists from UC San Diego, he discovers that many of the bacteria that give a washed rind cheese its earthy, basement-y, nose-wrinkle-inducing smell are the same bacteria that live on us humans, in our armpits, feet and other dark, moist areas. Pollan outlines theories about why Americans, much more so than their European counterparts, are often conflicted with feelings of disgust along with attraction when confronted with a washed rind cheese. It all goes back to the Puritans, who imposed strict societal norms regarding the human body and instilled sexual repression into the average American. Pollan quotes French sociologist, Pierre Boisard, who blames the United States’ ban on a stinky, raw milk camembert on “hidden Puritanism re-entering through the backdoor of alimentary hygiene” rather than on the risk of listeria or salmonella.
It’s a compelling hypothesis for sure.
Read Pollan’s book. Or at least watch the Netflix series also called Cooked, based on his book.
Now that you know about the similarities you share with a piece of cheese, let’s explore one of these washed rind specialties, shall we? And what more perfect washed rind to cover than THE quintessential stinky French cheese: Époisses.
Just like beer, many cheeses that we love and adore today originated in monasteries. Époisses was developed during the Middle Ages by Cistercian monks in Burgundy, France. Everyday, between prayers, these monks would wash the cheese with Marc, a spirit made from grape skins after they have been pressed for wine. Affineurs, or agers of cheese, always bathe washed rind cheeses in some type of alcoholic or salt solution (hence the term) in order to stimulate the growth of a bacteria called B.linens. It is this mold that gives washed rinds their ochre/pinkish/brownish color and their distinct odor (and give our feet that extra special aroma). Since its creation, Époisses has been considered a delicacy all the way through the reign of Louis XIV to today.
Procuring and Tasting:
Because Époisses is such a runny, gooey cheese, you almost never have the option to buy anything less than a whole wheel. If a cheesemonger were to cut it in half, it would melt into a pancake. This pricy cheese is definitely one to share with friends.
Ok. If stinky cheeses gross you out, try to tune out that disgust and open your mind a little bit. Époisses tastes different than it smells. It has such a satisfying, perfectly-balanced flavor of savory, barnyard-y and meaty. Really, do yourself a favor and embrace the stink.
Cooking with Époisses:
Given it’s boldness, I was surprised to find that there are many recipes that incorporate Époisses. Just google it! I tried a simple roasted potatoes dish with scallions. The funk of the Époisses completed the peppery (from the seasoning) and piquant (from the scallions) trifecta of flavors.
I also tried pairing my Époisses with a Burgundian Pinot Noir. Generally I feel pretty clueless when it comes to pairing cheese with wine so before trying this duo, I asked a cheese colleague what she would pair the cheese with. Her response? Definitely a red. Probably from Burgundy. “With pairings” she said “you always want 1 + 1 to equal 3.” By that she meant that the combination of two foods should not only enhance the flavors of one another but also create a new flavor. As I washed my bread and cheese down with my wine, I tasted sweetness in the Époisses, even more tartness in the Pinot Noir and could just barely discern a common earthy note in the cheese and the wine.