While studying to be a pastry chef, I started working as a cheesemonger. In a restaurant, the pastry chef is sometimes given the responsibility of overseeing the cheese plate. While the chef might be well-trained in the art of pastry-making, it is less common for them to have in-depth cheese knowledge. As a student, I needed to get a job and I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a job where I could learn more about cheese. Little did I know how much I would get sucked in to the wonderful world of cheese...
One Thanksgiving, I was taking the train to see my folks with a knapsack on my back and a brown paper parcel of cheese for the Thanksgiving feast. I stowed both above my seat and settled in for the journey. Just before pulling out of the station, a fellow got on board the train and, although he was in plain clothes, it was clear from his bag and his haircut that he was in the military. He sat down one seat over from me and looked nice enough. However, about 15 minutes into the journey, I began thinking to myself, “Gee, this guy really smells.” The smell got increasingly strong and I began wondering how many days it had been since his last shower.
I don’t remember now whether the fellow got off the train before I reached my final destination or whether it wasn’t until I had left the train with my parcels in tow that I realized he wasn't the stinker on the train. It was me. Or rather, it was the cheese I was carrying. I totally forgot that I was bringing home a washed-rind for the holidays. Boy, did I feel embarrassed. He must have been having similar thoughts about me – wondering why I hadn’t bothered to shower before going to see my family for the holidays!
Despite situations such as this, washed-rind cheese is one of my favorite categories of cheese. Yes, they can really be very stinky, but I think they are some of the most delicious cheeses out there.
So, what exactly are washed-rind cheeses? At their most basic level, they are cheeses that are washed with brine, or a salty water. Most semi-soft cheeses* are washed in a brine in order to discourage the development of certain molds or bacteria. Washing is done to varying extents and often results in a wet, tacky, reddish-orange rind. These are the cheeses mongers most often mean when they refer to a “washed-rind” cheese. Familiar names of washed-rind cheeses include: Taleggio, Langres and Vacherin Mont d’Or. The rinds of these cheeses tend to be moist, sticky and smelly. The greater the frequency of washing, the more oozy, the stickier and the smellier they will be!
The washing part of the process can happen by soaking the cheese in brine for a few hours, gently rubbing the cheese with brine or by splashing or spraying the cheese. The peachy-orange color of the cheese is the result of a bacteria growing on the rind. This bacteria, called brevibacterium linens, can occur naturally in an aging room or can be added to the milk or applied directly to the rind of a cheese, giving rise to an alternate name for this cheese grouping: "smear-ripened." Basically, as mentioned above, the brine-washing inhibits the growth of various molds and bacteria on the rind of the cheese. Brevibacterium linens is a type of bacteria that happens to thrive in just such a briney environment and, as a result, is given free rein to develop. I am almost hesitant to reveal the next little tidbit, for fear of turning people off of something so deliciously wonderful... This bacteria is actually closely related to that which you find on your feet.** B. linens is a coryneform bacteria that produces, among other things, methanethiol. Methanethiol is also found on sweaty feet and is a molecule that is largely responsible for the stink in stinky cheese and the smell of smelly feet.
In some cases, cheesemakers also wash their cheeses with alcohol – be it a marc (i.e. brandy) in France or a local beer in the US. There is a cheese made by Cato Corner Farm in CT called Hooligan – it is a great washed-rind cheese that gets washed with brine twice a week. Cato Corner has another cheese called Drunken Hooligan which is also a washed-rind, in fact the same cheese as Hooligan, the only difference being that it is washed with grape must and young red wine from Colchester's Priam Vineyard. A third cheese of theirs, Despearado, is Hooligan washed with fermented pear mash and Pear William eau de vie from Connecticut's Westford Hill Distillery. And, to round out the grouping, Cato Corner makes Drunk Monk which is Hooligan but rubbed in brown ale from Connecticut's Willimantic Brewing Company. The cool thing about this quartet of cheeses is that you can see the different impact on the same cheese of a straight-up brine wash, a wine wash, a marc wash and an ale wash.
In terms of old-world examples, classics in the alcoholic washed-rind cheese canon include Stinking Bishop which is rubbed with a brine mixed with perry (a liqueur made from fermented pears) and Epoisses which is washed with brine and a local marc de Bourgogne (brandy produced in the local vineyards of Burgundy).
Among my favorite washed-rind cheeses are Mary Burns' Ardrahan, Jasper Hill's Winnimere and Twig Farm's Washed Rind. Despite the fact that these cheeses all have the signature orange-ish rind, the three of them are quite different. Ardrahan is made in County Cork, Ireland. A cows' milk cheese, the paste is usually very yellow and to me the rind has a delicious saltiness that is evocative of the seaside. Winnimere, in contrast, is a spruce-bound cheese in the style of Vacherin Mont d'Or. Milky and lactic, the folks at Jasper Hill beautifully balance creaminess with delicate hints of spruce flavor. Last but not least, Twig Farm of West Cornwall, VT makes a washed rind goats' milk cheese. In my experience, washed-rind goats milk cheeses are not very common and offer a delicious variation on the washed-rind theme. What I really love about this small tomme of deliciousness is that it lets the raw goatiness come through while giving you hints of nuts - often peanuts - on the rind. As you can see, even within the category, there is quite a variety of flavor to be had!
*Note: the semi-soft category does not include cheeses that have white, bloomy rinds like Brie.
**For an interesting little tidbit from the British Medical Journal on stinky cheeses, b. linens, feet and mosquitoes, click here.