It might be hard to understand why anyone would purposely eat something with a strong -- and not necessarily pleasant -- smell, but one man's stinky cheese is another man's gourmet pleasure. In fact, according to Jill Erber, owner and operator of Cheesetique -- a specialty shop nestled in the Del Rey neighborhood of Alexandria, Va. -- for some cheese connoisseurs, the stinkier, the better.
"The flavor that is developed in such a cheese is like none other. It's a cross between salty, earthy, mushroomy and meaty," Erber says. "For many, once they begin enjoying stinky cheeses, they are forever seeking even stronger choices. A lot of people feel it makes them 'tough' to eat a cheese that so many other people shy away from."
The term "stinky" refers to a cheese variety in the washed-rind family, which means its rind was actually rinsed (most likely in salt water solution) during the aging process. This procedure stimulates the growth of brevibacterium linens (or b-linens for short), a bacteria that is unique to washed rinds, resulting in a less acidic cheese that is profoundly pungent. "The intensity of aroma and flavor increases the longer and more often a cheese is washed," Erber adds.
In general, though, most stinky cheeses don't taste as strong as they smell, which could explain why so many are drawn to them. If you're ready to give stinky cheese a try, why not start with the best? Here, we've pinpointed five of the smelliest -- and most flavorful -- selections. Read on to find out what each one has to offer.
Thought to be one of the oldest soft cheeses, Taleggio was first developed during the 10th century in the Val Taleggio valley, which is located in the Lombardy region of Italy. Production originally took place during the fall and winter, with farmers drawing whole milk -- which they later curdled and fermented -- from cows as they made their way down the Alps. Taleggio's smell is sometimes described as being similar to wet grass or even body odor, and the longer you allow it to age, the stronger that smell will be. Its taste, on the other hand, is much more pleasant -- slightly salty with hints of fruit. Taleggio has a creamy texture, largely due to its nearly 50 percent fat content, and you'll frequently find it paired with fruit or added to salads or pastas. Grayson cheese, which is produced in Virginia, is sometimes referred to as the American cousin of this variety, because it's similar in aroma, texture and taste.
Napoleon was an early fan of this French cheese, which grew in popularity during the 20th century. Though it was once manufactured on nearly 300 farms, production dwindled during World War II as makers were called to duty and didn't resume until the mid-1950s. The full name of this cheese is actually Epoisses de Bourgogne; "Bourgogne" refers to the region in France now solely responsible for its creation, which is accomplished with unpasteurized cow's milk. The cheese is also washed by hand up to three times a week during the aging process. It has a characteristically dark orange rind and carries a pungent and spicy aroma, while in texture it tends to be almost gooey, as if melted. Epoisses has a strong and meaty taste, and is often paired with Burgundy or a white wine that is considered spicy-tasting.
Epoisses is also sometimes compared to Munster, another stinky cheese that hails from France, which has an aroma that's often compared to a barnyard. Like Epoisses, Munster is meaty in taste and also salty, while its texture tends to semi-soft, almost like butter.
Named after the specific region in Normandy, France where it's manufactured, the cheese known as Pont l'Evêque -- which translates to "Bishop's Bridge" -- traces back to the 12th century, making it one of the oldest Norman cheeses still in production. Some might argue that it smells ancient as well, but that barn-like aroma primarily lives in its rind, which turns from yellow-orange to red as it ages. If you remove the rind, you may find it easier to enjoy its creamy taste, full of hazelnut and fruity undertones. As is the case with most soft cheeses, Pont l'Evêque is best served at room temperature -- perhaps spread on a baguette and paired with cider or champagne.
One of the more commonly known names in the realm of stinky cheeses, Limburger is a bit notorious: It was cited as the motivation for Teresa Ludwig's attempted suicide back in 1885. The New Yorker tried to throw herself off of a pier, supposedly because of her husband's constant Limburger consumption. The cheese originated in what was once known as the Duchy of Limburg, an area that now includes parts of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Today, it is primarily produced in Germany; Wisconsin's Chalet Cheese Co-op is the only remaining factory in the U.S. that still makes it.
Limburger's smell is often compared to sweaty feet, which makes sense when you learn that the bacteria it's fermented with -- b-linens -- is also found on the human body and is responsible for creating foot odor. Those with a strong enough stomach to move past this cheese's aroma will discover a nutty flavor and a buttery texture, which go well with sliced apples and pears as well as a pale ale, stout or merlot.
Made popular in the "Wallace and Gromit" animated film series, where it was used to bring Wallace back from the dead, Stinking Bishop (as its name suggests) is one of the most pungent stinky cheeses and one of the oldest. Its roots are believed to trace back to a cheese variety first developed by Cistercian monks during the 12th century, in the village of Dymock outside of London, England. Farmer Charles Martell moved to this area to create the modern-day variety in 1972, and his farm is now the sole producer of Stinking Bishop.
As is the case with many stinky cheeses, the aroma is primarily attached to the rind, which is washed in fermented pear juice. Once you remove that rind, it's smooth sailing to a soft, creamy texture and salty, meaty flavor, which works well when accompanied by bread and a dessert wine, such as ice wine or port.
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- BBC News. "Cheese to Make Big Stink on Movie." 09/12/2005.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/gloucestershire/4237402.stm
- Erber, Jill. Owner, Cheesetique. Personal interview/correspondence. 05/14/2010.
- Kirby, Terry. "A history of the Stinking Bishop." The Independent. 09/14/2005.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/a-history-of-the-stinking-bishop-506729.html
- McCalman, Max; Gibbons, David. Mastering Cheese: Lessons for True Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager. Crown Publishing Group. November 2009.
- The New York Times. "Death Before Limburger Cheese." Archives: 06/12/1885.http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9F01E1DD1439E533A25751C1A9609C94649FD7CF
- Siegel, Robert. "Stinky Cheese Maker Shuns Wallace and Grommit Spotlight." All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 10/07/2005.http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4950563
- Slate, Stacey. "Why We Love Stinky Cheese." The Daily Beast. 01/14/2010.http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-01-14/why-we-love-stinky-cheese/