Ew, What’s That Smell: How Can Stinky Cheese Taste So Good?

To some it smells like feet, to others it reeks of dirty socks. We are not talking about the locker room but the aroma of some of the world’s most delectable foods – gourmet cheese. One step into a cheese shop and it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the aroma. To some it’s offensive and to others it’s heavenly. With most foods, the sense of smell is directly related to the taste but this is not always the case with cheese. If the odor wasn’t enough to keep you from sampling these culinary delights then perhaps the production process will. Certainly adding to the gross-out factor is the use of molds and bacteria in the cheese production process to yield a desired rind color, flavor profile and scent. For the adventurous foodie, there are many renowned gourmet cheeses considered to have an unsavory bouquet that are definitely worth a taste.

Most gourmet cheeses known to be odiferous have something in common. They fall into a category known as washed-rind cheeses. During the aging process, these cheeses are washed with a brine typically of salt water, brandy, beer or other spirits. Sounds perfectly harmless, right? Turns out this washing method allows the cheese to become hospitable to a beneficial bacterium responsible for the brightly hued rinds, robust flavor and pungent odor. A few times per week, the cheeses are bathed in these liquids until they are perfectly aged.

While this may seem like these gourmet cheeses would be an acquired taste, chances are you may have already savored a few. Gruyere is a popular washed-rind cheese commonly enjoyed as a table cheese, used in fondues and is traditionally melted atop French onion soup. There are two types of Gruyere – Swiss and French (Gruyere-type cheeses are known as Comte and Beaufort). Only Gruyere produced in Gruyere, Switzerland has the Appellation d’Origine

 Controlee (AOC) and can only be labeled and sold as Gruyere. The AOC designation is essentially a culinary trademark protecting the recipe, region, heritage and production methods. Both the Swiss and French versions are produced from cow’s milk and washed with a salt-water brine. Gruyere can be identified by having small holes and is characteristically sweet, nutty and slightly salty. As it ages, the flavor becomes more full-bodied and the texture hardens with crystalline crunchies. This is one of the few washed-rind cheeses with a mild scent.

As we all know, the French love their gourmet cheese. No other country produces so many types of cheese. There is one cheese so odiferous it was once banned from Le Metro (the Parisian subway system) – Epoisses de Bourgogne. But don’t let this stop you from enjoying one of the most incredible washed-rind cheeses. With its edible rind the color of worn rust, Epoisses (as it’s commonly known) has a gooey, creamy center and a distinct, pronounced flavor. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, it is washed with the local brandy. Produced in the French town of Cote-d’Or, Epoisses also enjoys AOC status. Look for Epoisses in a small round wooden box at your local cheese shop.

An equally sumptuous washed-rind gourmet cheese worthy of your attention is Taleggio. This square-shaped cheese from the Lombardy region of Italy has been made in the same manner for centuries and therefore is assigned DOP status (Denomination of Protected Origin – Italy’s version of AOC). Made from cow’s milk and doused with a salt-water bath, Taleggio has an edible, rose colored rind. When perfectly ripe, it is a moist, semi-soft cheese with a buttery (some say meaty) taste. And let’s not forget the unforgettable odor.

With one taste of these epicurean treasures, it’s easy to forget the strong smell. Simply grab a bottle of wine and a loaf of crusty bread. But to be considerate, just make sure you are not on Le Metro.