Until now, I have tried to write about cheeses - both local and international - whose flavors and aromas are likely to appeal to a broad audience. But a recent dinner at Central and a cheese plate I served to some friends have reminded me of one of my favorite "stinky" cheeses: Époisses de Bourgogne, or simply "Époisses" for short. This washed-rind French cheese has a distinct bouquet that can turn some people off, but those folks don't know what they're missing.
Époisses (pronounced "ay-Pwahz") is not a subtle cheese; it is full-flavored with a tang that I will forever associate with the pale orange color of its rind. And its aroma can be quite intense - you will begin to smell this cheese as soon as you open it up. In fact, there is an oft-repeated rumor that this cheese has been banned from French public transportation because of its pungent nose. Although we cannot get the fresh raw-milk variety that is so highly prized in Europe (and Montreal, I can say from experience), there is a pasteurized version produced by Fromagerie Berthaud - who call themselves "the original Époisses cheesemaker" and have been making the cheese since its resurgence in the 1950s. The production method dates back to the sixteenth century, when Cistercian monks in the area first began making the cheese and passed the tradition on to local farmers. Époisses received AOC status in 1991, making it a protected agricultural product.
Here in the United States, Époisses is most often found in small wooden boxes that protect the soft, round discs of cheese. They weigh 250 grams (slightly more than half a pound), and they generally retail for $16 to $20 each - I found it for $18.99 at Cheesetique, $18 at Calvert-Woodley and $15.99 at Arrowine. The cheese is manufactured by heating cow's milk for at least sixteen hours using lactic acid, after which it is placed into molds, salted and allowed to dry. From there, it is aged for at least six weeks, during which time it is washed in a mixture of water and pomace brandy (also known as marc). The brandy gives the cheese its color and its strong scent.
Allowed to sit at room temperature, Époisses practically melts inside its rind. The soft, creamy interior is easily spread, and it is positively delicious on raisin or date bread, where its salty tang offsets the deep sweetness of the dried fruit. Nuts, grapes, and whole-grain crackers also work well as accompaniments to Époisses. It makes a great component of a cheese plate alongside a firm slicing cheese and another flavorful cheese (sweeter blues are perfect).
If you find yourself with any Époisses left over after serving, it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week and still retain its original flavor (and aroma). Just make sure you wrap it tightly (or store it in some sort of airtight container). This is essential to maintaining the quality of the cheese and to preventing its scent from permeating everything else in your fridge!
Époisses has certainly had its share of admirers throughout the years. It was a favorite of Napoleon, and the description of Époisses as "king of all cheeses" comes from none other than Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (the 19th-century French gastronome who wrote The Physiology of Taste). Although it is certainly something of an acquired taste, Époisses is a taste well worth acquiring.