‘Is my Epoisses bad?’ I found myself Googling.
I had left the thing in the refrigerator for a week or so and was a bit worried, upon smelling some ungodly foulness, that my precious cheese had gone off. No, in fact. It turns out Epoisses is supposed to smell like the inside of a butt. Oh, well, carry on then.
Epoisses – like most cheeses, I’m finding – was named for the town in which it originated. The town itself has just over 800 residents (down slightly since the 80s, mysteriously) and seems, from my research, to be completely devoid of interest. It is home to a very pretty castle, which, it also seems from my research, is completely devoid of interest. They do appear, however, to be quite serious about their cheese. Epoisses – the ‘King of Cheeses’, depending on who you ask (Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, for one) – is nearly 500 years old, and was originally made by a small Cistercian community, who, when they up and left for whatever reason, passed the recipe on to local farmers. The farmers kept up production until, as the Epoisses website has it, the ‘1914-1918 war’ (no big deal), when production effectively halted. Every source on the subject seems to blame women for the downfall of Epoisses. Apparently, during the First World War, all of the men left town and died, leaving the women to tend the dairies, which, apparently, they just couldn’t handle. Consequently, Epoisses was neglected into oblivion. However, things took a fortunate turn in 1956, when Robert and Simone Berthaut revived the old recipe and re-established Epoisses as an international sensation. The death-to-life story is fitting, because Epoisses has a distinct zombie-breath aroma that is, as you might imagine, a bit difficult to overcome.
The repellent smell, though particularly unsettling with Epoisses, is common in washed-rind cheeses. The procedural detail that distinguishes washed-rind cheeses from unwashed-rind cheeses is that the rind is washed. After the curds have been molded, the cheese is soaked either in a saltwater brine or in alcohol, depending on the intended effect. Epoisses is washed three times each week in marc de Bourgogne, a kind of pomace brandy made from the spent remains of pressed grapes. This process cultivates Brevibacterium linens, which lowers the acidity of the cheese, but smells absolutely horrendous. When people say that a washed-rind cheese smells ‘like a foot’, they aren’t exaggerating: Brevibacterium is commonly found on human skin and is, precisely, the cause of foot odor. Why on earth would you soak your curds in alcohol and turn your otherwise fine-smelling cheese into foot fungus? Because. Okay? Because monks used to do it in the Middle Ages. That’s why. So, that’s that, and stop asking about it.
Not all washed-rind cheeses smell quite so terrible. With many of them, you’d need to get pretty intimate to notice anything off-putting. I wouldn’t recommend this, however. If you take home a wheel of washed-rind cheese and find your nostrils unassaulted, don’t go sniffing out trouble. You’ve won. Be happy. Epoisses, on the other hand, is banned from public transportation. So, you know, light a candle or something.
When I unwrapped my Epoisses, things weren’t looking good. The rind was coming off onto my hands like a melting chocolate bar and breaking in places, unleashing a slow, lava-like flood of putrid lactic spillage. I ran to my computer for help. ‘This is all quite normal,’ it assured me. ‘Go ahead and dig in.’ A few photographs showed the wheel being eaten from within its wooden box, which seemed at least marginally more appetizing, so I picked up the wheel and slid it gracelessly back into its container. Epoisses, like Winnimere, is meant to be spooned. This will make immediate intuitive sense when you unwrap yours (I haven’t convinced you to buy your own yet?) – the thought of trying to slice into the wheel evokes images of chaos and horror. I took a small spoon, pulled back the rind, and bravely scooped a bit of cheese into my mouth. The taste, as it tends with stinky cheeses, was remarkably more mild than the smell. Initially, there is a strong bitter, grassy taste that, after a few moments, gives way to a pleasant creaminess. The bitterness lingers softly on the tongue and slowly works its way up the palate, hovering subtly as the earthiness subsides with more tastings. Throughout, however, is a powerful saltiness that is rather nice at the start, but which makes Epoisses difficult to eat in long stretches. The rind is perfectly edible, but doesn’t contribute much to the effect. It has a mildly bitter flavor and a soft, sandy texture common in washed-rinds. As always, whether or not to eat the rind is entirely up to you.
How do you know if your Epoisses is bad? Washed-rinds that have gone off tend to smell like Windex. Cheese can smell pretty bad, but it shouldn’t smell like Windex. Don’t eat that.
‘The King of Cheeses?’ I don’t know. That’s quite a title. And I really shouldn’t weigh in. First of all, I’m me. Second of all, as it goes with imported cheeses, the raw milk has to be substituted with pasteurized milk to cross the border, so, I cannot even properly say I’ve had the stuff. Napoleon liked it. I don’t know if that does anything for you. It’s a lot. If you’re a bit uneasy about stinky cheeses, this one might take some preparation. It really does smell awful. However, if you can hold your nose until the cheese gets into your mouth, the taste is quite a different experience. One worth having, I’d say.
I leave you with the (Google Translated) words of the great French poet, Charles Patriat, who wrote (approximately):
Who wants to buy Camembert too soft
Roquefort massive aroma wild
Brie and Gruyère underworld, the wise
Choose the cheese, oh Bourguignon at home.
Gourmet, whoever you are, if you first wrinkle
To hear some formulate this principle,
You know this is wrong, or I lose my Latin,
This dish connoisseurs: Epoisses cheese.
In the States, you’ll only find Epoisses made with pasteurized cow’s milk. No matter where you find it, however, it will have traditional rennet.