and the wines that love them
If the thought of cheese conjures up images of bland snack food hermetically sealed in cellophane sheets, cardboard tubes or aerosol cans, it's time to wake up and smell the aromas. There's a universe of cheese out there that'll either completely disgust you or change your life. Yah baby, I'm talking about stinky cheeses, the bacterial mutations covered in festering mold. The kind that if you get them just ripe enough they ooze like slime and emit aromas that make your dirty socks smell like the latest Calvin Klein fragrance by comparison. In other words, cheese nirvana. Like glistening pearls in barnacle-covered oyster shells, stinky cheeses offer a gastronomic bonanza to those who can get past the appearance -- and of course the nearly toxic fumes. The reward for perseverance is a decidedly unstinky taste sensation that saturates every last taste bud with a robust, creamy -- yet tangy -- fusion of flavors.
I was introduced to the world of stinky fromage during a wine trip to Bordeaux. In no time, I found myself neglecting the elaborate multi-course meals in order to save room for the cheese service that inevitably follows every grandiose French dinner. Years later, my true stinky cheese epiphany happened at Mraz + Sohn, a restaurant in Vienna, Austria. After a sumptuous meal, I bolted for the cheese cart to survey the odoriferous delicacies. Half-jokingly I asked the waitress where the really, really stinky cheeses were. Without missing a beat, she pulled out a drawer to reveal the holy grail of mold-covered, runny cheeses. The motley assemblage looked as threatening as it did appealing. The uninitiated might have turned and run, but I asked for a taste of each, along with a glass of Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz (my server's recommendation). The gloriously pungent French cheeses, alongside a wine exploding with ripe supple fruit, created a spine-tingling culinary orgasm. It was the closest I've ever come to a perfect marriage of food and wine.
In my never-ending quest to help you get a lot out of life, regardless of what your lot in life is, I set out to learn why the artisan cheeses eaten in Europe are so different from what we've all grown up to accept as cheese in America.
I soon discovered that the nose-numbing smell and moldy rind that're the hallmarks of stinky cheese are the result of polycultures and bacteria that form on the outer skin of the cheese as it ripens. As it's aged, the cheese skin absorbs the earthiness of the damp cellars, and the mold that develops on the rind, called Bacillus linens, generates an ammonia-like smell. Some of the finished cheeses are also "washed" in locally produced spirits, such as marc, a rough Burgundian brandy, which ferments the natural fats and adds another layer of complexity to the already heady aromas.
There's another element that contributes to the difference between European and American cheeses, although there are dissenting opinions as to its importance. In America, most cheeses are required by law to be pasteurized, a process that heats the milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit, thus killing potentially dangerous bacteria (and unfortunately some of the flavor). In France, where cheese isn't required to be pasteurized, the milk is heated to a lower temperature, which preserves the integrity of the raw ingredients. Of course the quality of the milk itself, determined by what the cows graze on, is also a key factor. Then there's the issue of making the cheese to suit the taste of the consumer. European cheeses are crafted to meet European tastes, which tend to be bigger, bolder and less convenience-driven. Most French cheeses imported to America, such as familiar cheese-tray staples like brie and camembert, conform to American regulations and tastes. This double fault produces much milder cheeses. They may be French, but they're not Frrrrench.
There's no question that stinky cheese is an acquired taste. But if you hold your nose and take the leap, you may never wrestle with a cellophane wrapper again.
the ultimate stinky cheese list
Epoisses - Burgundy
Le Cados - Normandy
Ami du Chambertin - Burgundy
Chablis - Burgundy
Camembert au Calvados - Normandy
Muenster - Alsace
Appenzeller - Switzerland
wine and stinky cheese pairing
It takes a big wine to stand up to a stinky cheese. To play it safe, select powerful reds with lots of body. Well-structured wines, such as big California cabs and French Bordeaux, are safe bets. The Australian Penfolds cabernet-shiraz blend that rocked my world is a perfect example of a more supple, less tannic wine with enough intensity to meet its match. If you're adventurous, you can dabble in the art of regional pairings (i.e., Burgundies with Burgundian cheeses and gewurztraminer with Alsatian muenster). Select the biggest wines each region has to offer.
the stinkin' facts
* Goat and sheep cheeses can be more pungent, but virtually all stinky cheeses are made from cow's milk.
* Once cut, a small round of cheese will last about two weeks in your refrigerator.
* Always bring cheese to room temperature before serving.
* To accelerate the maturation process and heighten the olfactory assault, wrap cheese in wax paper and store at room temperature. (This does, however, shorten cheese's life expectancy and may force your housemates to quarantine the kitchen.)
* The ideal bread to accompany cheese is a nut bread containing walnuts or hazelnuts (and sometimes bits of dried fruits). But any crisp baguette or sourdough loaf will do.
sniffing out stinky cheeses in america
Sparse quantities of authentic unpasteurized French stinky cheeses do mysteriously make their way into the United States and can be found in specialty cheese stores in major metro areas. If you live off the eaten path, The Cheese Shop of Beverly Hills recently went online with the stuff that'll either deify you at your next dinner party or empty the room -- depending on the audience. Go to http://www.cheesestorebh.com, or call 800/547.1515. The prize cheeses range from $15 to $25 for a small round that weighs about eight ounces. Trust me, it's worth rolling your pennies for.
Jonathan White, proprietor of the Egg Farm Dairy in Peekskill, New York, supplies his artisan cheeses to many of the finest restaurants in the country. His "wild ripened" cheeses are "vat pasteurized" in an Old World method that allows him to lower the temperature and still stay within the law. The results are cheeses that rival the French ones in taste, complexity and appearance, although the styles he's chosen to make are not as smelly. Visit http://www.creamery.com, or call 800/CREAMERY. Cheeses start at about $8 a pound.