Part III (stinky cheese)
By Mike Rosenberg
After our forays into hard and soft cheeses, the time has arrived to have a peek at the most polarizing province of the cheese kingdom, stinky cheeses. So, what are they and where the heck does that smell come from?
With most hard, longer-aged cheeses, the chemical and bacterial makeup of the cheeses prevents the formation of various kinds of mold and bacteria. With stinky cheeses, the growth of that mold is not only desirable, but encouraged. There are two major processes a cheese maker 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 that can bear mold – usually some type of alcohol. 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 from the Penicillum genus. As the mold propagates, it forms veins through the cheese, altering the texture, flavor and odor. Common examples of this type of cheese are Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola.
I chose three cheeses for the tasting, 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.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sauternes, it’s a sweet, expensive, French wine that was simply unbelievable, flavorwise. Sauternes is a “botrytized” wine, meaning the grapes have also molded with “noble rot.” There are other, less expensive wines made in a similar fashion.
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. 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.
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, 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
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 Cambridgeshire County, 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. 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, Stilton is 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. The traditional wine pairing is port. 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.
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 cheese 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 five months. It’s a white cheese, crumbly and shot through with the mold.
The initial smell of this cheese can set you back a step. It’s very earthy and salty with a rich consistency and a buttery finish that goes on and on. The Riesling and Port were only average companions for the Roquefort, but few things prepared us for the Sauternes. After a couple of bites, they meshed into a combination that simply demanded savoring over a long period of time. Which is exactly what we did, happily.
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writer Mike Rosenberg at
TheNakedVine@yahoo.com or visit the blog at www.TheNakedVine.net.