The Comfort Food Diaries: Love Stinks

Zac Overman

Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

Getting it home is hard. Even tucked away in its squat, round wooden box, bagged in plastic, and stuffed into the bottom of my purse, the Époisses gradually wafts its stench through the entire subway car. I can feel it emanating from my person, concentric waves of ammonia and rotten trash. Nearby passengers press the backs of their hands over their mouths or plug their nostrils with their knuckles, glancing furtively in my direction. I twist uncomfortably in my seat, willing the epicenter to shift, and follow suit, affecting an expression of mystification and disgust. It's poor camouflage but I throw myself into the act anyway, narrowing my eyes and looking around in feigned suspicion every few minutes. I tell myself there's no way I could've known it would be this bad, that nobody would blame me for my mistake, but it's a lie—this is, after all, the cheese so notoriously stinky that it's purportedly illegal* to take it on the Paris métro. When the train finally pulls into my stop, I rush off, half expecting a horde of angry commuters to chase me down the platform.

Though this is a commonly referenced notion, my research indicates that the regulations simply forbid the transport of any items that are dangerous or bothersome to fellow passengers. Époisses surely qualifies, but it's not exactly an arrestable offense.

The paranoia is worth it, though. I've always had a thing for foods that melt in your mouth, but my obsessions with jellied delicacies and translucent slices of prosciutto pale in comparison to my love of soft, stinky cheeses. And Époisses de Bourgogne, a young, brandy-washed cow's-milk cheese that hails from the eponymous French village, is the most treasured of them all: Brillat-Savarin famously crowned it "le roi des fromages" (the king of cheeses). One of our resident cheese experts, Benjamin Roberts, calls it "the most intimidating of washed rind cheeses but also the most rewarding." And in The Devil's Picnic, Taras Grescoe situates Époisses at the center of Satan's cheese plate, "silently slumping into putrefaction." But, he continues, "once past the odor barrier of mingled ammonia and is reminded that Satan is in fact a fallen angel: the tongue is suddenly suffused with the divine essence of fresh milk, a pure distillation of salt, sugar, cream, and all the rich odors of the Burgundian countryside."

These are the words that first compel me to order a small serving of Époisses at Murray's Cheese Bar, the restaurant companion to New York City's famed cheese shop. On the menu, it's described simply as "classic, pudding-esque," and it comes dolloped in a small bowl, alongside slices of baguette and a small porcelain spoon. To be clear: There is no such thing as a "slice" of Époisses (and if you've managed to cut one, you're not doing it right). Époisses is eaten at room temperature, and it's measured in runny spoonfuls and mouth-coating schmears. It reeks, but the smell is a poor indicator of flavor: The cheese is silky and creamy, verging on mild, with a funky meatiness that calls to mind the love child of a dry-aged steak and nutty-sweet jamón Ibérico. I finish it in a matter of minutes and debate getting another. I could devour pounds of the stuff, mountains. Or so I think.

I don't order more, not then. But I find myself lingering at cheese counters around the city, tasting sweet, mellow affiné au Chablis; smooth, faintly smoky Winnimere; agreeably yeasty Taleggio. These are the funky, velvety cousins of Époisses that come in manageable sizes—quarter-pound orders that suit my wallet and tame my taste buds, but never quite hit the spot. Époisses, though, is an investment. It's sold as a whole wheel, not piecemeal (save in restaurants like Murray's), so taking it home is an all-or-nothing commitment. Which is how, on an electrifying whim, I find myself passing through the subway turnstile clutching an eight-ounce, $27 package of one of mankind's smelliest cheeses.

Walking briskly from the subway to my apartment, I feel liberated, powerful, and incredibly hungry. I already know exactly what will happen next; I've played it through in my mind countless times before. I'll rummage through the jumbled collection of cutlery in my kitchen drawer, searching for the perfect spoon, one that's small but heavy, with a smoothly rounded handle. I'll enter my bedroom and close the door, set the package on my bed, and lift the lid off the round poplar box. Possibly a glowing light will emanate to the tune of an angelic choral ahhhh. The dusky orange rind will part at the lightest touch, exposing a lava-like pool of pale yellow cheese. And then I will lift my spoon, pause to savor the moment, and inhale the entire thing in one fell swoop.

Instead, I'm quickly overwhelmed by the richness and intensity of the cheese. Époisses is more of a handful than I remember. It's meant, I decide, to be eaten slowly, in Murray's-size portions. Even so, I manage to finish off at least a dozen spoonfuls before I reluctantly stick it in the fridge. But if the subway was bad, the fridge situation is soon far, far worse. I catch my roommate shuddering each time the refrigerator door swings open and shut, expelling a noxious cloud into our living room. Soon, she's staying at her boyfriend's house and I can no longer have visitors; there's simply no explanation that can justify the smell.

Still, I can't bear to part with the Époisses. I've fallen in love with this cheese, in no small part because it guarantees solitude. Thoroughly and utterly alone, I can take my time with it. There is nobody to judge me as I bask in the fumes, waiting for the cheese to warm. Every now and then, I press gently on the surface, impatiently checking its density. Jump the gun and the unctuous custard texture will be lost, the nuanced flavors muted.

These days, I live with my boyfriend, and opportunities are fewer and farther between—unlike my roommate, he has nowhere to run when my Époisses cravings strike. But whenever I have a few days to myself—when he heads to a conference or visits family or spends weeks single-mindedly absorbed in the World Series—I buy myself a round of Époisses. Visitors are encouraged to steer clear, and I spend a weekend sitting on my bed, windows opened wide, reading a book and dipping into Époisses with that same heavy-handled spoon. By now, the cheese and I are cellmates, symbiotes. We've done this dance enough times for me to know that when Époisses is in the house, it's just the two of us. And while it creates my isolation, it also fills the void.