They’re stinkers. There’s no other way to describe washed-rind cheeses as a category. Since so many artisan cheesemakers in the United States are exploring this style – from Doe Run Dairy’s new Bathed in Victory (PA) to Canal Junction’s Charloe (OH) – I thought I’d offer a few pointers about identifying and tasting this full-bodied favorite.
Besides, summer breezes around the bbq grill are the ideal setting for a washed-rind experience. When you put the meat on the coals and everyone starts to salivate, set out a hunk of funk. No one will be able to turn away.
Washed rind cheeses smell “barnyardy” on purpose. This cheese style was developed by 16th century French monks who brewed liqueurs and milked cows as part of their monastic duties. Some brilliant brother discovered that dousing a young cheese in booze (brandy) encouraged vibrant orange bacteria to grow on the rind, creating a succulent, fudgy wheel.
The taste reminded the brother of beef stew, something he hadn’t eaten since taking a vow of poverty. At last, here was a means of eating carnage without consuming actual flesh! Lo, Epoisses – the classic washed rind cheese – was born. It became so popular that even Napoleon fell head over heels. Today, the smell has hurt this cheese’s luxuriant image; it’s actually illegal to carry Epoisses on French trains, but don’t let that stop you from sampling this super power. I mean really, just open a window.
Not all washed-rinds are as whiffy as Epoisses. The Italians produce Taleggio, which can be fairly tame – it smells more like bread dough than beef stew. Like all washed rinds, though, its surface glows – the rosy color looks like cooked shrimp, thanks to special bacteria called B. Linens. They love to tan on damp surfaces. Cheesemakers encourage B. Linens to grow by washing their cheeses with various potions: from beer, to a mixture of wine and herbs, to plain ol’ brine. The resulting cheese is moonish, a little sticky, and usually quite fudgy within.
Classic American washed rinds: Red Hawk (CA), Hudson Red (NY)
For the novice: Anton’s Red Love (Germany) or Winnimere (Vermont)
Washed-rind cheeses love to cuddle with big wines. A feisty wheel can brawl with a gutsy red or white; a Cote du Rhone, which exhibits meaty or bacony flavors is a good bet, so is the sweet-spicy yammer of a Gewürtztraminer.
In her new book, Cheese and Beer, food expert Janet Fletcher suggests Belgian-style strong ales with milder washed-rinds, like Beaufort; their “palate-scrubbing effervescence” offsets the unctuous character of this hunk. For stinkers of stature, a potent tripel or quadruple is a better match. The high alcohol content stands up to the strong, sometimes garlicky, flavors of a washed-rind kingpin.
Sandwiches: A bacon burger is a great place to stash a washed wedge, like Bathed in Victory – a new Pennsylvania cheese that’s washed in Victory beer (ask for a taste at the Di Bruno Bros. counter). Or, try sliding a few slices onto a BLT or a grilled cheese. For a snack, I love to top baguette rounds with speck (a smoky cured ham) and thin slices of Reading Raclette. Then, I pop them under the broiler and garnish them with black pepper and cornichons.
Appetizers: A patio party or picnic is really just an excuse to serve a whole wheel of Epoisses in its balsa wood box, along with celery sticks and toasted baguette rounds – no one will notice the scent, and if they do, blame it on something in the sandbox. To serve a ripe (read: runny) Epoisses, just peel back the top rind like the lid on a sardine can. Then dip, dip, dip away while the kids cavort in the pool.