|Young Epoisses, about 10 days old|
We've all had that experience at some point: you open up a piece of cheese from its package, and your nose is immediately overwhelmed by the smell of a "stinky cheese." Love it or hate, it's a fact of life: sometimes, cheese stinks!
So what makes a cheese smell that way? The answer, in short: cheese is ALIVE! (The more sqeamish among you may not want to read further; those of you who enjoy knowing the origins of what you eat--this is for you.) In very brief terms, cheese is made by inoculating milk with cultures and then coagulating it. Basically, you add mold to milk and then separate the milk solids from the milk liquids (the curds from the whey--yes, Miss Muffet was basically eating fresh cheese, something akin to cottage cheese). You then gather up the solids and wait.
|"Middle aged" Epoisses, about 3 weeks old|
As you wait, the mold slowly eats the curds, and turns them into cheese. The process is basically the controlled spoilage of milk. That white fluffy stuff you see on the surface of your Brie or Camembert--that's mold, and it gives the cheese much of its flavor and character.
But wait, you say, Camembert and Brie aren't stinky cheeses. What does this have to do with stinky cheese?
There's another way to ripen cheese. Instead of letting the mold continue to grow on the cheese's surface, certain cheeses are "washed" in a brine solution, usually salt water, though sometimes wine, an eau-de-vie, or even beer will be used, as well. This prevents the mold from growing, and instead (squeamish people should really stop reading here!) encourages the growth of certain bacteria on the surface of the cheese. Obviously, the bacteria is harmless to humans, and it is this bacteria that gives a cheese its "stink" (so you could make the claim that the bacteria is even beneficial, especially to lovers of smelly cheeses).
|Almost Ripe Epoisses, about 6 weeks old|
I got to visit a cheesemaker in France who makes Epoisses (pronounced "ay-pwahs"), France's most famous stinky cheese, and have posted some photos here of the cheese at different points in the aging process. You can see in the young version how there's still plenty of white mold growing on it, and the bacteria hasn't really started growing yet. But by the end, its a beautiful, stinky orange, with almost no signs of white mold (other than the smell, you can always recognize these washed-rind cheeses by their yellow or orange rind).