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[Photographs: Rabi Abonour]

Cheese folk often speak dreamily of bloomy rind or soft-ripened cheese, while your friends at the cocktail party chatter on about good old Brie. But in truth, they're speaking the same language — what binds these cheeses together is their downy, edible white rind. In cheese techni-speak, it's called a bloomy rind (or sometimes a soft-ripened, or even a surface-ripened cheese), and they're some of the most delicious cheeses out there.

Brie-ish cheeses have a rind made of some combination of mold (Penicillium candidum, Penicillium camemberti), yeast, or yeast-like fungus (Geotrichum candidum) that blooms like tiny flowers on the exterior of a ripening cheese. Over time, these patches of yellowish white fur are patted down to form a cohesive skin, or rind, on the cheese's surface. This live rind breaks down the fats and proteins of a cheese, causing an increasingly creamy to runny texture over time. This is why you may encounter that glistening layer just under the rind, which is called the creamline. The moister a cheese is to begin with, the faster this breakdown occurs.

Traditionally — as in, in northern France in the Middle Ages —these molds were ambient in cellars where cheese was stored. These days, cheeses are inoculated, meaning the mold/yeasts are introduced in powder form to milk during the cheesemaking process. They may also be added to the curd after coagulation, or be misted onto the surface of finished and formed cheeses prior to aging.

That said, bloomy rind cheeses can be made in any country and with any milk. What I've said before about other types of cheese (and will say again and again because it's what makes cheese so neat) is that within this one style there is a considerable spectrum of flavor and intensity. You may like one end of the spectrum and hate the other. Even more vexingly for the cheese newbie, both ends of the spectrum are occupied by cheese called Brie. Therefore, I find it easiest to say what bloomy rinds should be by defining what they should not be.

  • A molded rind that has turned brown, sticky, red, or cracked (it need not be pristine white, but mottled is not the same as solid brown).
  • A rind that, when unwrapped and at room temperature, separates from the interior paste. This is the cheese equivalent of being flipped the bird.
  • A rind that is thick, chewy, or excessively papery. The rind need not be the same texture as the interior paste, but it should not require aggressive mastication.
  • A cheese that emits cartoon-like rays of ammonia.
  • A cheese that is firm. These cheeses should never be firm.
  • Finally: a cheese that tastes like aspirin or ammonia, or, tastes like nothing. Milk is not nothing, nor is lush, fatty cream. Those are mild, mellow hallmarks of dairy greatness. You don't have to love the rankest smelling cheese to appreciate good cheese, but good cheese has flavor.

To taste across this vast and miraculous spectrum start with double-crème French Brie, which is cream-enriched to hit 60% or more butterfat. A cheese's fat content is based on fat in dry matter, meaning that a soft cheese (like Brie), with more residual water than, say, Cheddar, may have 60% fat in dry matter but isn't actually 60% fat when you read the nutritional info on the label. For Brie, avoid those packed in an individual wood box —those hockey pucks are generally the most industrially produced, with thick, tough rinds and aspirin-y aspirations. Basic Bries are placid and unoffensive, buttery, with a hint of sautéed white button mushroom.

From there, consider Fromager d'Affinois. Made with the aid ultrafiltration, the milk going into this cheese has had its solids filtered out from its water prior to cheesemaking. There is a bit more protein and calcium than in a cheese where the curds are drained during the make process. Why care? One winds up with an almost otherworldly smearability and a hallmark rind that's thin and totally innocuous in flavor. The cheese is actually quite tart, more like cultured butter, though it does qualify as a double-creme with 60% butterfat.

Add cream, add butterfat, hit 75% or more, and you've got yourself a triple-crème. The most famous are French, as in St. Andre, Pierre Robert, or Brillat Savarin and at their best should be a confidently salted mouthful of room temperature buttercream. Some American stalwarts such as Cowgirl Creamery with their Mt. Tam admirably manage the balance of decadence and backbone.

In the vein of bloomy-need-not-be-French-cow, the pioneering American cheese Humboldt Fog by Cypress Grove Chevre is a brilliant example of the flavor difference the milk makes. Humboldt Fog isn't sticky and silky like Brie, but you look at it and are reminded of Brie that was hit with a growth potion, Alice in Wonderland style. Its flavor is saltier and less acidic than fresh chevre, with a notable absence of animal flavor. Instead, you get a flaky cheesecake texture and buttermilk tang with pronounced citrus fruit. That dark line through the middle isn't blue mold but decorative, edible vegetable ash.

While these last few have increasingly pronounced tang, the culmination of bloomy potential is the pungent and complex flavor extreme that smells like very slowly, lovingly, overcooked cauliflower. These cheeses taste almost savory—heavy on the fat and sweet cream, with a rich, condensed flavor and a slightly damp hay-like whiff. Ferme de Jouvence Brie Fermier, Rouzaire's Formage de Meaux or Le Chatelain Brie are among the most promising.

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