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For the Love of Stinky Cheese

To get the best flavor, some varieties must be allowed to breathe. Which means you won't want to, Dan Harder predicts.

April 23, 2006|Dan Harder

I make no excuses. The cheese MUST be served at room temperature. Yes, the house smells of old socks when the guests arrive, but the taste, you can't compromise that. I wasn't always so gaga about "stinky" cheeses. But living in France for three years cured me of that. You cannot sit down to a fine meal there without inviting a pungent cheese platter to the table. As Brillat-Savarin, food sage and chauvinist, once said, "A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye."

My personal favorites are the Alsatian Munster, Langres, Livarot and Epoisse varieties. They are all raw cheeses made of cow's milk and washed in brine, brandy, Chablis, cider or other taste-enhancing solutions. They are medium to soft-bodied and tend to melt when cut. Don't, in other words, expect the best experience if, at room temperature, you poke the cheese and it pokes back. And don't fall for the line that the "ammonia smell" just means it's ripe. It doesn't. It means it's dead. There's a difference between "stink" and "stench."

Paradoxically, these powerful-smelling cheeses usually don't have the most powerful tastes, unless you eat the rind. A goat or blue cheese will often have a far stronger flavor.

When I was living in the mountains in the middle of nowhere in France, I used to love the local Picodon, a goat cheese that got better and better and better the longer I left it in a paper bag on top of the refrigerator. The invention of cheese, by the way, predates the invention of the refrigerator. The two have recently met, but they are not friends. Ditto cheese and plastic. Hold your nose if you must, but let your cheese breathe.

You will, unfortunately, have a hard time finding some of the best "stinky" cheeses in the States, at least in a seasonally fresh condition. As a culture, we are leery of unpasteurized products. There are a few that are allowed in the country if they have been properly aged more than 60 days. My neighborhood cheese shop, in fact, has what the owner calls "the drawer of death," in which he keeps his most potent products.

And not all of them are French. Some of the "ripest" and tastiest cheeses I've had recently have come from Ireland, Durrus being one of them. You can also find some odiferous wonders from Italy, such as an aged and occasionally smelly Brescianella that is washed in aqua vite and rubbed with rye bran. And let's not forget England's Stinking Bishop, a whiff of which revives the delighted Wallace in his most recent film with Gromit.

In L.A., you can find a host of olfactory challenges at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. The range of cheeses at this shop distinguishes it from most of the places I've patronized in France. Here, for example, you'll sometimes find Celtic Promise, a stinky washed-rind cheese from Wales that expands the borders of smell and taste.

You can, of course, eat these potent cheeses by themselves, and that experience is sometimes preferred by the fanatical turophile. I usually pair them with bread and wine--a fresh pain de campagne, a baguette (my current fave, depending on the cheese, is a sourdough variety), or even a nonassertive cracker. And though some people like a good, strong farmhouse cheese with a good, strong ale, I say bring on the wine, preferably red and with enough body to stand up to the smell, but not so much muscle as to destroy the flavor.

Not long ago, Limburger cheese was more of a joke than a food that people thought they could enjoy. One of Mark Twain's characters even mistakes its smell for a rotting corpse--the experience of which almost kills the man. Nowadays, far smellier cheeses are finding their ways to our tables. And while my house guests may be puzzled, I am the happier for it.

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