As told by Oliver Sutton, The Cheese Artisans’ chief fromager who’s a walking encyclopedia of every cheese imaginable.
A little background
Washed rind cheeses have been made in Europe since the middle ages. While there is no specific historical reference to the first production, it has been widely attributed to the monasteries of Northern France, often referred to as monastic or Trappist cheeses. some have attributed rind-washing as an attempt to develop a meaty flavour in cheese as people had to abstain from meat for long periods of time. However, it is also known that it inhibits mould development and helps the development of good bacteria, as well as enhancing flavour. During this period, water was mostly not potable. so they would have used beer, wine or spirits to wash the cheeses.
The many varieties
The washed rind family of cheeses is incredibly broad. Gruyère and comte are part of it but generally, when people refer to washed rinds, they’re thinking of the soft and the stinky. It all boils down to preference. Styles such as epoisses (trou du cru), livarot, münster and limburger are intense and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Other styles such as reblochon or taleggio are far mellower and less aromatic but with a creamier flavour profile that’s easier for a far broader audience. Try the langres, a French soft cow’s milk washed with marc de champagne. Mellow, rich and creamy, with the rind wrinkled of a beautiful orange.
What causes the smell?
The process changes the make-up of the cheese, developing a bacteria that’s better suited to humid, ammoniated and salty conditions. On washed rind cheese, the notable bacteria is brevibacterium linens among others. Key characteristics include an orangey-red colour and aroma that isn’t always pungent.
Telling a good-bad smell from a bad-bad smell
The main odour to be wary of is ammonia, which is almost always a sign that the cheese has overdeveloped and the flavour will be just as it smells. Another good sign to look for is at the rind of the cheese itself. If you see a lot of little white spots looking like salt crystals, the cheese has overdeveloped and the flavour will be unpleasant.
The degree of stink vs flavour
We don’t really define the cheese by its aroma as the aroma is not necessarily definitive of the flavour profile. Stinking Bishop, an English cow’s milk cheese washed with pear cider has a particularly pungent aroma but the flavour is mellow and fruity.
Ripening cheese at home
Cheese maturation is a skill and it requires many varied factors that are dependent on it. If you are keen, the best investment is a wine fridge. It has both temperature and humidity control, thus you can amend both factors and create the ideal climatic conditions.
Storing cheese at home
The best way to store cheese is wrapped in parchment paper and in a tupperware. This will protect the cheese from humidity (reducing chances of mould) and prevent your fridge from smelling like cheese. Often enough, cheese gets thrown away because the face has developed white mould spores. Actually, this is perfectly fine and can be eaten but for those not feeling so brave, just scrape it off and wrap it in fresh parchment.
It is best served with…
I am a bit of a cheese purist so i really like to enjoy the cheese on its own or with bread (either a baguette or sourdough). But there are a multitude of excellent crackers and condiments that pair with cheese, giving them a new dimension. Dried or fresh figs, grapes and fruit jam are great. Raclette, melted under a raclette grill and served over boiled potatoes with Cornichons and cold cuts is a dish made in heaven. Lastly, cheese is always at its best when served at room temperature. In our climate, I would suggest getting your cheese out 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Oliver Sutton’s dairy career started early at seven with two pet goats and a yogurt delivery service. He trained as a chef and worked in fine food distribution before following his calling in the world of cheese. Armed with over 15 years of experience working in the UK and as a judge at both the British and World Cheese Awards, Sutton moved to Singapore in February 2016 to create Singapore’s first purpose-built cheese maturing rooms at The Cheese Artisans.