Have you ever opened a cheese and wondered what small rodent just died in the immediate vicinity? Or who suddenly started cooking bacon? As I progress in my lifelong quest to make the perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich it is only since I escaped the U.S. that I am truly beginning to glimpse the undiscovered country of Cheese. French Cheese. Stinky French Cheese. In some recent peregrinations hither and thither I’ve stumbled upon not a few of the finer, more malodorous cheeses that I feel need a bit of exposition. Which, of course, begs the self-reflexive questions: Are you a man? Or French? I am one and not the other and I do not believe that they are contextually interconnected whatsoever. I do however have frequent visions of myself eating a cornucopia of cheeses in the breezy French countryside, often shirtless, amongst the ruminating beasts of the earth, passing along sage advice to both wandering shepherds and bedroom eyes to bewitching maidens. Doesn’t everyone? For this, I thank cheese, specifically French cheese, called fromage (avec le flegme). Coming from the western U.S. my childhood version of cheese was bright yellow, square and came wrapped in cellophane, which cheese did not smell in the slightest (except maybe a bit like plastic) and reflected a bit too much an odd kind of light that was not actually there, facts that now scare me more than it is right to speak aloud. I see myself calming the barnyard animals grazing the hills and dales of the French countryside around me, as the wind picks up and maidens clutching at unbuttoned blouses point toward yonder barn. Hurry monsieur, tell us, why do some cheeses have strong aromas and other varieties don’t?
I’ve heard more than a couple swarthy Missoula, Montana Militiamen sucking on a bottle of Moose Drool comment that in France, especially Paris, people stink, and only recently started to bathe, something they call “douching”, so they have the best bacteria for cheese-making (true story). This is not true, at least not anymore, not since Jim Morrison (purportedly) died in a bathtub there and made bathing in wine all the rage. There are kernels of truth in most everything and although this might be pushing the limits what we can point to here after the tang of snuff has died down is the bacteria which gives most cheese its distinct flavor, but first we need Rennet. Rennet is a complex of enzymes naturally found in the stomachs of mammals used to process mother’s milk, one enzyme in particular called protease, which acts as a coagulant that separates the curds (cheese) from the whey (liquid). Of course it’s not the French who figured all this out (probably Caligula and his strange compulsion with animal innards), they just perfected the stink. Rennet used in vegetarian cheese is either fungal or bacterial, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s time we got to the goods, n’est-ce pas?
Commonly referred to as Époisses, this masterpiece of a cheese-making village is located in the Côte-d’Or of Bourgogne. As most cheeses, butters and wines are in the habit of being dubbed in France, Époisses de Bourgogne is a cheese made in the village of the same name- Époisses. A washed-rind cheese (washed in Marc de Bourgogne, the local brandy), which gives it the distinctive reddish hue, it is circular and sold in a wooden box, for that authentic neo-bourgeoisie pique-nique à la campagne feel, which probably was why it was Napoléon Bonaparte’s favorite cheese. An extremely pungent, unpasteurized cows-milk AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) cheese, it, as are all raw cows-milk cheeses aged under 60 days, is actually illegal in the U.S. for just that unpasteurized reason. This makes me think of Joe Strummer belting out, “I’m so bored with the U.S.A.” Does it makes sense that the F.D.A. is scared of cheese, especially non- or low-aged varieties, so much so that any U.S. citizen reading this cannot buy the really good stuff (and as of 2012 no Californian can have anything to do with Foie gras either) yet McDonald’s questionable business practices and products are perfectly acceptable? On behalf of all ex-patriots I thank the Japanese government for not caring about animal rights whatsoever.
If you can get your hands on them, a few sister cheeses to Époisses are the lesser known, non-pasteurized Petit Livarot (called the Colonel due to being wrapped in rafia, which apparently I ate…) from Normandie and Le Nuits d’Or also from Bourgogne. Another similarly red-skinned skunk is Maroilles (famous for being dipped in coffee in the French film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis), which is square (for our U.S. readership, it’s like a Wendy’s hamburger), produced in both pasteurized and nonpasteurized varieties, generally a bit less barnyard-y than Époisses, and boasts more than 1000 years of history. As anyone with a general idea of French geography has gleaned from my selection, all of these cheeses are from the north. As I perch like the Gallic Cock upon my Nord-Pas-du-Calais hilltop overlooking the Straits, I am suddenly channeling the medieval troubadour-poet stylings of the Norman Trouvère Jean Renart and praise the French for all the good things in life: Fries, Kissing, Cheese & actresses ala Anne Marivin. Où caches-tu le fromage, ma belle Anne Marivin?
As a palate cleanser if you will, Anne Marivin is the very beautiful French actress in Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) who, though she never actually eats any cheese on camera, you know that she has at some point, and it probably has never come out of a spray can, which is why I love her. I envision her coming toward me on my hilltop now, smiling coyly and carrying some Chimay Tripel toward my outstretched arms. That’s their secret: the French only eat the most olfactorily shocking cheese outside, on breezy hillsides where the breath of the person you will most likely know intimately matters little. C’est pas grave!
C’est tout? No! What love letter would be complete without the application of the proper perfume, which in this case is, obvious but, the only choice: Roquefort. Yes, this well-molded celebration of all things putrid is a sheep milk blue cheese from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon which is, yes, in the south of France aka Le Midi (as in Midday). Already boasting great weather overhead topless French women lining the Mediterranean beaches along the Côte d’Azur, why does the south deserve any more attention? Listen: Roquefort, a rindless A.O.C. with a protected designation due to its use of the natural caves of Mont Combalou for the aging process, this salty crumbly cheese shares its characteristic green, almost vaginal-shaped, crevasses of mold from the Penicillium roqueforti fungus with other exceptional blues like Stilton and Gorgonzola, but it’s better because it’s not English (horrible weather) or Italian (need I say more?). Let’s recap why it is, as well as the rest of the aforementioned stinkbombs, so good, so deserving of praise from a west coast born American ex-patriot living in Tokyo (where it costs at least double):
Eating cheese is sex. There’s a kind of unspeakable passion to it, that lovers of it understand with a sly nod and a wink. It’s creamy and messy and makes your blood run hot at the very mention of it. True, sometimes it’s got a funk attached to it, kind of an odd tang of genital musk. It carries a hint of the mephitic stench of sulfur in the sense of Faust’s Mephistopheles, but even more so it’s a bit of a devilish indulgence which can only reference the devil-may-care attitude of sensuality and voluptuousness. Eat it in a salad, on a cracker, or as a melted accompaniment to bruschetta atop toasted homemade wheat sourdough, or just all alone, but dammit, eat it!