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Freak the Funk

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Board from top left to right and then bottom left to right:  Green Dirt Farm, Prairie Tomme,  Irish Gubbeen, British Rollright, (Both exported from Neal's Yard), French Langres, and Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, Campo. Board from top left to right and then bottom left to right: Green Dirt Farm, Prairie Tomme, Irish Gubbeen, British Rollright, (Both exported from Neal's Yard), French Langres, and Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, Campo.

By Rachael Lucas

Stank bomb.  Beef loaf.  Pew puck.  Dookie disc.  Whatever you want to call it, washed rind (or smear-ripened) fromage epitomizes the distinction of stinky cheese. 

Developing turophiles may have difficulty in readily munching this brand of effluviant fare; aroma can be a powerful deterrent.  However, once you become a daily practice kind of aficionado, you will discover that the more you eat, the more you want to eat.  Your palate evolves, and your taste buds will delight in the volatility that washed rinds can possess.  Knowing what washed rind fromage entails--the history, the complex affinage (the aging phase), and the fact that it freaks the funk--has made this category of cheese untouchable in my love affair with dairy.

Washed rind cheeses, you could say, are a blessing.  They originated in Catholic monasteries where monks patiently and methodically perfected their craft and created a means of preserving milk through the cold seasons.  Presently, the earliest known documented washed rind cheese is Munster Gerome from Alsace-Lorraine, France.  It has existed at least from the 7th Century.  Munster is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese (raw or pasteurized) that is aged between two and three months.  It is a salty ole’ crank, with a reddish-orange, tacky rind that emits a dirty laundry hamper/Saturday-night-steak-stuck-between-Tuesday-morning-teeth bouquet.   The rind has a granular chew because of salt, and the paste is like farm-fresh butter, with a skosh of horse blanket and hay.  Admittedly, I have not had the opportunity to taste the raw milk version.  One can surmise that it has an even broader flavor profile.

Taleggio pix by Rachae LucasTaleggio is a Lombardian washed rind that is one of earth's greatest melters. It is a mouthful of silken (slightly tangy and yeasty) goodness. To make a washed rind cheese is to create life.  The beginning phases of washed rinds can go one of two ways:  It can start out with uncooked, un-pressed curd that is ladled into molds—much like soft-ripened cheeses like brie or camembert; or the curd is cooked and pressed, so as to minimize moisture, which makes for longevity (think alpine style cheeses).  From there, affineurs literally take the wheel. 

The aging process begins with, at the minimum, a salt brine washing.  Salt stifles acidification.  This enables certain salt-resistant yeasts and bacteria to proliferate on the rind, most notably Brevibacterium Linens, which are responsible for the orangish hue you find on this class of cheese. The salinity increases pH which encourages even more microbial development for those creatures that prefer a less acidic environment.  The aging facility must be relatively warm (usually between 58-63 degrees) with super high humidity (mid-to-upper 90’s).  These conditions enable the life on the rind to run amok.  Through their microbial interactions, enzymes are released; microbes die for other microbes to consume them, which develop new enzymes and acids, etc., that interact chemically to create volatile compounds that emit aromas, flavors, and textures.  In short, the cheese thrives. Washings (and turnings) ensue, and this enables the rind to continue to teem with life.  When the affineur decides that she wants to slow down microbial activity, which is often the case with firmer cheeses, she moves her wheels into a cooler, less humid environment and will discontinue the brine baths or will do them sparingly. 

In conjunction with a salt brine, affineurs often wash the rind with cider, beer, wine, brandy, or the like.  In some cases, cheeses like Comte are washed in morge, which is a sloppy brew of brine, slimy scraps of old rinds, and perhaps a little booze (this is also known as backslop).  It is love and war in there.  The added fermentation creates an even more unique microbial playing field.  This gives the cheese a ton of pizazz.  It also makes for a pungent waft.

For people like myself, smelling washed rind cheese is pleasurable.  I can’t get enough, especially since I know that those sweaty socks, potent armpit, and oral food pocket aromas come from compounds that we, too, possess.  Moreover, washed rind cheeses tend to contain sulfides, which make for cruciferous veggie, egg and firecracker aromas and flavors!  Sometimes they’re musty, like mothballs or my grandma’s scalp.  They can smell like a dusty peanut shell or a dead skunk.  Or maybe it has a faint hint of clean granite. At any rate, aromas do not necessarily indicate the flavor of the cheese.  Do not be fooled.

Washed rinds can be savory, umami, brothy beef bites.  They sometimes taste like smokey bacon, even if the cheese itself wasn’t smoked.  Or they can be sweet, yeasty, and delicately lactic.  It all depends on the washings, the frequency thereof, terroir, milk-type/quality (of course), and the environment of the aging facility.  Washed rind cheeses range from extremely mild, approachable, and dulcet to horrifically pungent, bacterial, and (I’ll just say it) poopy.

It is always wise to consult your trusted cheesemonger when looking for new cheeses to try.  If you’re recently washed-rind-curious, tell her that you want to tip-toe into it slowly.  Ask for samples of a few milder washies.  If you feel like you need something a little bolder or less yeasty, or whatever, express this to your cheese person.  It is our job to learn the particulars of your palate and be able to walk through your fromage journey with you.

If you were to approach me in my cheese department, and you expressed that you are a tinge intimidated, I would give you a taste of Taleggio.  This Lombardian cow’s milk cheese is a gateway washed rind.  It is odiferous, sure, but the flavor profile is sweet, slightly tangy, with hints of yeast.  It is one of the best melters on the planet, and it’s easy to find.  This was my first favorite washed rind. 

Other noteworthy cheeses of this category include Jasper Hills’s Winnemere, Neal’s Yard’s Rollright, Boxcarr Handmade Cheese’s Campo, Fontina, Durrus, Langres, Gruyere, Epoisses, Abondance, Morbier, Raclette, Cabra Raiano, Green Dirt Farm’s Prairie Tomme, and too many others to mention.  I encourage you to start perusing your local cheese departments, and never hesitate to ask for tastes and for a fresh wedge to be cut off the wheel!

Because washed rinds tend to have more salt and, therefore, less acidity, they can be easy to pair.  If you have an acidic wine, try a washy to velvet it out.  If you like to eat cheese for dessert, taste some with Moscato, or what about funky Munster with an Alsacian Reisling?   The salty and sweet juxtaposition is exquisite.  I also love washed rind cheeses with a malty beer because they interact like old chums.  You can use them in savory melty dishes, like tartiflette, risotto, cheesy eggs, or brussels sprouts.  These cheeses are so personality-laden that you can really have fun with them and their myriad uses.  To be sure, the more you eat, the more you will yearn for something stinkier.  This is palatal development.  Before you know it, we are all going to be walking around with farmyard breath.  And why not?

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

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