After our forays into hard and soft cheeses, the time has arrived to have a peek of the most polarizing province of the cheese kingdom, stinky cheeses. They’re sometimes known as “pungent,” “blooming,” or “blue” cheeses. So, what are they, and where the heck does that smell come from?
As we discussed in the other entries, cheese is created by allowing milk to curdle, separating the curd from the whey, pressing the curd into a certain shape – then, usually, aging the cheese for a certain period of time. The older the cheese, the stronger or sharper the taste and smell usually become. Stinky cheeses are all aged. What makes them different from, say, cheddar?
With most hard, longer aged cheeses, the chemical and bacterial makeup of the cheeses prevent the formation of various kinds of mold and bacteria. With stinky cheeses, the growth of that mold is not only desirable – it’s encouraged! There are two major processes a cheesemaker uses to “stink up” a cheese: from the outside in and from the inside out.
The “outside in” cheese is usually referred to as a washed rind cheese. Once the cheese’s rind forms, the entire block of cheese is cured for a period of time in brine and/or other substances which can bear mold – usually some type of alcohol. Beer, wine, and brandy are common additions to the wash, along with certain spices. Curing the rind in this solution allows the formation of a certain type of bacteria that imparts the stronger flavors and scents to the cheese. A washed rind cheese can be soft or hard. While the rind usually has a very strong scent, the cheese itself is often somewhat mild. Examples are Limburger, Munster (not Muenster!), and Taleggio.
The “inside out” cheeses are known as inoculated cheeses. An inoculated cheese begins its change from normal to noxious early in its lifetime. While the cheese curds are still loose, they’re injected with a specific type of mold – one from the Penicillum genus. This mold has been used to stinkify cheeses for over 2000 years. As the mold propagates, it forms veins through the cheese, altering the texture, flavor, and odor. “Blue” cheeses are in this category, although the mold can also be brown or green, depending on the specific type of mold involved. Common examples of this type of cheese are Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola. (As a side note -- this is the same type of mold from which Penicillin was first synthesized when it was discovered that certain bacteria don’t grow in the presence of the mold)
We chose three cheeses for our tasting, along with some “classic” wine pairings:
- Taleggio (pairing: Alsace Riesling)
- Stilton (pairing: Australian tawny port)
- Roquefort (pairing: Sauternes)
You may be looking at those pairings and thinking, “One of these things is not like the other.” You’d be right. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sauternes, it’s a sweet, expensive French wine that was simply unbelievable, flavorwise. Sauternes is a “botyrized” wine, meaning that the grapes have also molded with “noble rot.” There are other, less expensive, wines made in a similar fashion. Ask your neighborhood wine person. As an alternative, an Auslese Riesling or a ruby (rather than tawny) port will work. Still, follow the link above if you want to read how that wine made our eyes roll back. Otherwise, onward:
Taleggio – A cow’s milk cheese named for Val Taleggio, the valley in Lombardy, Italy, from where this cheese hails. It’s a washed rind cheese, traditionally sponged with seawater once a week during the 6-10 week aging process. The finished product has a whitish rind like brie, but the two smell nothing alike.
I was introduced to Taleggio via one of my coworkers who simply told me, “It’s good stuff.” When I unwrapped it, I have to admit to a moment of dubiousness. There’s no better way to put it – the stuff smelled like feet. However, once I got some of it on a cracker, my opinion rapidly changed. The cheese does have an earthy funk to it, but it’s light. It’s creamy and the flavor is nicely balanced. Very tasty on its own.
Matched with the wines, the Riesling was the best pairing by far. The wine amplifies the funk and brings out some more complex flavors in the cheese itself. However, I would suggest a slightly sweeter Riesling rather than a dry one. The cheese turned the wine somewhat too sharp and metallic. Even just an off-dry Riesling would be enough to keep out the potential unpleasantness. As for the other two – well, I have in my notes, “Poor Taleggio.” Both the Sauternes and Port absolutely overwhelmed this cheese. In my opinion, this would be a great cheese to melt into risotto or some kind of pasta sauce, but on its own, you may get a bad match if you put it on your holiday cheese plate.
Stilton – Another cow’s milk cheese that you’ll find colored either white or yellow. For a cheese to be legally Stilton, it must be made in County Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire, England. Interestingly, the village of Stilton is not in any of those counties, but instead in the nearby County Cambridgeshire, thus rendering it illegal to produce Stilton in Stilton, for reasons known only to British royalty. Also, Stilton must be made from pasteurized milk rather than raw. (I assume this is to prevent unwanted bacteria from growing.) Stilton is made by piercing the cheese blocks with needles, allowing air bearing the mold into the core of the cheese. Aging of the cheese takes about nine weeks.
On its own, it’s a very full-flavored cheese with a strong salty flavor. The traditional food pairing with Stilton is pears. Sure enough, the two of them meshed very well. The pear-sweetness was an excellent balance for the funky, salty cheese. The traditional wine pairing is port. It was very good. The flavors meshed nicely, and, again, the sweetness of the wine balanced the cheese. The Riesling was pleasant enough. Both experiences, though, paled next to the Stilton with the Sauternes. A little of the cheese, a pear, and the Sauternes was eye-crossingly good. However, I wasn’t trying it with $70 port, so it might not have been the fairest comparison.
Roquefort – This cheese is produced from sheep’s milk and comes from a specific region in the south of France. The particular mold that gives this cheese its particular flavor is found in the soil of nearby caves. The traditional method of making this cheeses involves leaving loaves of bread in the caves until they’re consumed by mold. The moldy bread is then ground into powder and mixed with the curd. The cheese is then aged for about five months. It’s a white cheese, crumbly, and shot through with the mold, which is usually a bright green.
The initial smell of this cheese can set you back a step, but the flavor is one of super creamy goodness. It’s very earthy and salty with a rich consistency and a buttery finish that just goes on and on. “Buttery, yummy mold in your mouth” was a comment from one of us. The Riesling and Port were only average companions for the Roquefort. Neither was particularly outstanding – but few things prepared us for the Sauternes. All of the flavors are very powerful, but they all work together. They practically rotated on our tongues, trading back and forth between the earth and the sweet. After a couple of bites, they settled down, meshing into a combination that simply demanded savoring over a long period of time. Which is exactly what we did, happily.