Stinky cheese. The kind your grandparents ate. The kind you imagine Altoid-averse French nationals slathering on a baguette. You're hesitant, but you're also intrigued—surely these odoriferous specimens must have some redeeming quality? Yes, in fact. I am here to tell you it is all going to be okay. This cheese subspecies is filled with some of the most alluring textures and flavors known to cheesekind, and it'd be a shame for you to miss out on them.
Cheese smells because of bacteria. Notice I didn't say smells bad. Bad is, of course, subjective. The particular bacteria I'm talking about here is is b. linens, which is the same bacteria responsible for the odor in your sweat. The bacteria in cheeses is intentional and arrives as a result of washing the rind. Rinds are typically washed in salty brines or some variety of alcohol—that's what really gets the funk going.
If you're ready to take the plunge (which you should be!), here are a few key stinky cheeses to look out for.
The most famous of the funky cheeses. There is a rumor which exists on the internet (but I can never seem to find the actual decree) that Epoisses was banned from being carried on public transport in France. Yes, it can be that stinky. Sold in round boxes to contain the oozing, Epoisses will run(!) when ripe. Epoisses is washed in a pomace brandy marc de Bourgogne and aged for around six weeks. This may be the most intimidating of washed rind cheeses but also the most rewarding. Pair it with a floral apricot jam and you'll be converted.
County Cork, Ireland, is a magical place and they sure do make some wonderful cheeses there. Salty air from the sea combined with the salt brine create the tacky orange rind of Ardrahan. The Burns family has been making cheese from Friesian cow's milk on their farm for generations. The dense, fudgey cheeses range from lightly banyard to peanutty to full on funk. Like all good farmstead cheeses, they vary from batch to batch.
A Wisconsin original created by a Swiss immigrant in the late 1800s. John Jossi wanted to create something like limburger and came up with idea of brick cheese. Its name comes from the fact that the cheeses are pressed down with bricks during the aging process and are therefore made in the shape of a brick. Very few producers in Wisconsin are still making authentic brick cheese. One of my favorites is Widmer's brick cheese, because it still packs a punch. Cut this guy into rectangles and serve on rye bread with mustard and raw red onion. Don't kiss anyone for at least 24 hours after consuming.
Affine au Chablis
The mellow cousin of Epoisses. It's a newer invention and, as the name implies, is washed in Chablis wine. A perfect entry-level washed rind because the bacteria on this guy is only slightly smelly. More sweet than meaty, I like to spread the previous night's leftovers on toast in the morning with strawberry preserves. Not as dense as cream cheese, but far more interesting.
Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Dairy
A fabulous raw milk cheese. Andy Hatch, owner and cheesemaker at Uplands Dairy (maker of Pleasant Ridge Reserve) in Wisconsin, created this cheese as a way to utilize his winter milk. Pleasant Ridge is made with the summer pasture milk and then the fatty, creamy Rush Creek is made with the early winter milk. These discs are bound up with a piece of spruce bark to keep the cheese all together. The best plan of attack with Rush Creek is to actually spoon the paste out the top rather than trying to cut through the bark.
The classic Italian washed rind cheese. This DOP protected cheese is made in square shapes and aged in caves. Taleggio has a yeasty quality rather than a full-on funk that makes it one of the more approachable washed rinds. It's a versatile cheese as well—it's great on a braised short ribs sandwich or melted on a pizza with mushrooms. Not all Taleggio is created equally. Look for minimal cracking on the rind and not too much bulging.
Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk
One of my favorite domestically produced washed rind is made by the sea in Marin County, California. Forget Cowgirl's Mt. Tam— Red Hawk is where it is at. This is a triple creme made with organic milk and washed in a brine as it ages for four weeks. Each 10 ounce wheel starts out chalky and slowly ripens until the entire paste is an oozing mess. Like most washed rind cheeses, if you pay close attention and eat it at its ripest, you will be rewarded with a milky, fruity, funky cheese that's reminiscent of Alsatian muenster. Wait too long and you'll be stuck with a bitter, angry cheese best suited for feeding the cat.