Last month I recommended that people branch out and try some new cheeses. “Be brave,” I said. This month I’m going to tempt you still further by dispelling the myth that stinky cheese tastes like it smells.
A combination of factors makes up a cheese’s aroma profile. Age, the type of milk used, the enzymes that break down the proteins in the milk, and the various molds in the rind (or introduced into the cheese in the case of blues) are all factors that determine how a cheese smells. The best known and stinkiest cheeses have a washed rind. Various liquids are used for the washing, anything from port to beer to salt water. The wash keeps the cheese moist and supple, and encourages the various bacteria that grow in the rind to give it the pungent aroma—although the cheese inside is usually soft and creamy.
The best-known of the washed rind cheeses is Limburger. Aged two to three months, Limburger is washed repeatedly with a salt-water solution that has been inoculated with Brevibacterium. Yes, that’s the same Brevibacterium that causes body odor. If that isn’t enough to make Limburger the butt of all your stinky cheese jokes, a recent Nobel prize winning study showed that the mosquito responsible for malaria was equally attracted to the odor of feet and the odor of Limburger. But hold on here, Limburger the cheese isn’t Limburger the smell. For starters, check the date on the Limburger. As it ages Limburger changes from a mild and crumbly (and relatively stink-free) feta-texture to a rich, creamy, spreadable cheese. At about three months, it develops its pungent smell, but even then it has a mild flavor that pairs well with fruit—very similar to a brie.
Limburger used to be one of the more popular cheeses in this part of the world. Though it was developed by Belgian monks, it reached the masses through production in Germany. The many immigrants to the Midwest brought it with them, and there were many manufacturers of Limburger in the U.S. Now, there’s only one U.S. maker of Limburger—Chalet Cheese in Monroe, Wisconsin. A very light-tasting cheese, try Limburger on some rye bread with sliced onions and get back to your Wisconsin roots, and get over your fear.
Another washed rind favorite is Taleggio (tah-LED-joh). This is a true cheese aficionado’s delight. Imported from Italy, Taleggio has a rich, creamy texture—almost melting on the palette. Known for its sticky, odiferous rind, which creates the unique meaty paste hidden inside, Taleggio has a mild flavor with a tangy and fruity finish. The texture is soft to oozy. While I feel it pairs best with a crusty bread and a bottle of white wine, it also goes very well on pizza and sandwiches (I found a great grilled Taleggio and grapes (!) sandwich online) and can pair very well with an Italian red wine as well. If you’re anxious to have a truly unforgettable cheese experience, buy yourself a chunk of Taleggio.
For our third washed rind cheese I was trying to decide between Reblechon and Raclette. I decided to do one instead that combines some of the finer points of both these French favorites—Saint Nectaire. A regionally protected French cheese, Saint Nectaire is produced in the region of Mont-Dore in Auvergne using milk only from cows that graze in the mountains of Auvergne. Saint Nectaire’s most noticeable characteristic is the fact that it smells like a combination of wet basement and straw. This is probably because that is where it’s aged and what it’s aged on—cellar-aged on rye straw. Saint Nectaire starts off with a bitter taste that you expect from the smell, but as you get past that initial shock you taste the salt crystals that form from in the rind as well as a hint of walnut flavor. This nutty flavor pairs very well with a fruity red wine, as well as crusty French bread and fruit.
Our final smelly cheese brings us back home to Wisconsin and one of our favorite cheesemakers—Widmer’s. For a brief rundown on Widmer’s check out the Deli cheese compendium at our website in the December issue. Suffice to say, Joe’s cheddars have won numerous awards and it won’t be long before his Aged Brick does as well. When you look online for a description for Aged Brick’s flavor and aroma you usually end up with something along the lines of pungent or strong. Ask my wife and you get, “Ugh, that’s horrible!” I actually brought this home by accident one day, thinking I’d grabbed the mild (young) brick. The mild brick is one of the most unassuming and pleasant cheeses there is. When it grows up, however, it’s a cheese that’ll put hair on your chest. Imagine my surprise when I opened mine and out sprang the familiar Brevibacterium odor! This is brick; it’s supposed to mild and friendly and melt on my cheese sandwich like nobody’s business. It’s not supposed to be what the cheese people refer to as “assertive!” But wait, it turns out that Brick cheese is made almost exactly the same way as Limburger. The difference is a slightly lower moisture level. It was developed by a gentleman who noticed that, after he screwed up some Limburger, he still had some pretty good cheese to sell. So, aged Brick is Limburger gone bad in a way. That’s scary. The good news is that I used it anyway, and although I will say that eating it by itself was a pure joy to Lucy and Maddie, I also have to admit that they are Basset hounds who find pure joy in eating things they find in the road. I think it works better in combo with other foods. I had it as a grilled cheese dunked in some tomato soup and the texture was fabulous—while the sweetness and acidity of the tomato combined perfectly with the flavors of the cheese to make this a truly delightful meal. I branched out after that (I actually took home quite a bit) and tried it out in a salad with fruit and a vinaigrette and again the flavor combination was a big hit. I’ll be a bit more careful in reading labels from now on, but I will say trying the Aged Brick was definitely a happy accident.