Stinky, funky, stanky: a guide to washed rind cheeses

Epoisses, the kind of funk. Cheeserank

Epoisses, the King of funk. Cheeserank

People have very strong feelings about certain types of cheese. Just the other night, I was at a bar with some friends, one of whom was keeping a death grip on a half-wheel of Epoisses I’d given him. For the uninitiated, Epoisses–which hails from Burgundy–is one of the most sublime cheeses on earth, but it’s also one of the most odiferous. The fumes from the cheese wafted across our table, practically hovering in a fog around us. Earlier in the day, we’d paired it with some Calvados, and the results were nothing short of revelatory.

Stinky cheeses possess what are known as “washed rinds.” When you hear a cheese likened to dirty feet or sweaty socks, funky armpits, or described as punchy, yeasty, beefy, meaty, or barnyard, chances are good it’s a washed rind. This style of cheese also possesses a signature rind, which is sticky and orangish, reddish, pinkish, or brownish in color. Their interior can range from soupy (cue the aforementioned Epoisses) to semi-firm.

Washed rinds get their name from their “make” process. They’re washed with brine (or beer, wine, grappa, brandy, etc.), which facilitates the growth of  Brevibacterium linens, or B. linens, a bacteria that  gives these cheeses their signature stink. It also prevents unwanted molds or bacteria from entering the cheese, while enabling good organisms to ripen it and develop its distinctive flavor. B. linens itself is responsible for the color, texture, and smell that are the hallmarks of most washed rind cheeses.

Haystack's Red Cloud

Haystack’s Red Cloud

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B. linens can exist naturally in the air where the cheese ages, but usually it’s added to the brine. The cheeses are usually washed as they age, as well. Cool trivia: B.linens also naturally  exists on the human body, which explains why these cheeses are often said to smell like feet. Despite their signature funk, bear in mind cheese of any type should never smell like ammonia, which is a sign it’s overripe. Washed rinds in particular are prone to this characteristic. As long as they’re not too far gone, you can remedy the situation by allowing them to air out for up to an hour before serving.

We love washed rinds, which is why we produce two versions of our own: Sunlight, and the award-winning Red Cloud. Both are punchy, semi-firm cheeses with flavors ranging from toasted almonds to freshly-cut grass (Sunlight is the less assertive of the two, although both are fairly mellow as washed rinds go).  To quote well-known cheesemonger and author Gordon Edgar of San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative: “Red Cloud is an incredibly underrated cheese. Many people have tried — and failed — to make a raw milk, washed rind, goat cheese that is consistently good, but Haystack has this one down.  Red Cloud is firmer than you might imagine for this style, but is meaty, fruity, tangy, and complex.  This is one of my favorite American cheeses.

Photo credit: The Deals

Photo credit: The Deals

I can’t help noticing that men in particular seem to have a thing for washed rinds. Maybe it’s a holdover from their bachelor days, when they happily wallowed in their in their own filth, living amidst dirty clothes, sheets, and dishes. Perhaps it’s more primal than that: he who was the smelliest produced the most blatant pheromones in order to secure a mate.

Whatever the reason, dudes usually dig stinky cheese, in the same way they love beer. This is convenient, because washed rinds and beer are a love match like no other. This Valentine’s Day, give that someone special (even if that person is you, and even if you’re female) the gift of romance. Nothing says, “I love you” like a super funk cheese and a six-pack of craft brew.

Some pairing tips:

Belgian ales, Lambics, hard ciders, and IPA’s are particularly washed rind-friendly. The rule of thumb is to match intensities between beer and cheese, or strive for contrast (this also applies to wine, spirits, or N/A beverages). Pair beer with our Sunlight or Red Cloud, or world-class cheeses such as Munster (the real deal is a primo soft, stinky cheese from Alsace; Muenster is a semi-soft American invention that is fairly bland); Livarot; Pont l’Eveque, or Taleggio. For domestics, we love Rush Creek Reserve (Uplands Cheese Company), Red Hawk (Cowgirl Creamery), and Grayson (Meadow Creek Dairy).

 

Holiday cheese pairing tips: Beer rules!

Photo credit: Drunk Sunshine

Photo credit: Drunk Sunshine

Perhaps one of the most intimidating aspects of cheese is how and what to pair it with. Allow us to reassure you of two important points:

  • Cheese is easier to pair with beer than wine. The tannins, acids, and oak (when used for aging) in wine can be problematic when pairing with cheese, whereas beer and cheese have similar production methods (they’re both grain-based, fermented products, and tend to have similar flavor profiles).
  • While there are some key tips to follow with regard to pairing, there are  exceptions to every rule. The bottom line, in our opinion, is to eat and drink what you enjoy, and dissenters and haters be damned!

Still, we think it’s helpful to provide pairing rules of thumb, because a good match is, in the words of a cheesemonger we know, like a good marriage. Both parties should have their own, distinct, positive qualities, but when combined, magic happens.

Plays well with others. Photo credit: Healthy Recipe Ecstasy

Plays well with others. Photo credit: Healthy Recipe Ecstasy

Read on for what we feel are the most crucial points to remember in pairing cheese, be it with wine, beer, spirits, or “dry” or other specialty sodas.

  • Match intensities. For example, a big, bold, young Cabernet Sauvignon or chocolatey Stout will completely overpower many cheeses. Conversely, a soft, delicate varietal will be lost when paired with a super funky or sharp cheese.
  • Bear in mind terroir. Don’t just assume “this grape varietal will go with this cheese,” because variations in climate, geography, vintage, and production method vary greatly. The same is true of cheese. Ultimately, tasting before you buy or serve is the best way to determine if you have a match; barring that, talk to your cheesemonger, or refer to this handy post!
  • Aim for similarties or contrasts. A rich, buttery cheese such as a triple crème or brie will go well with a wine or beer with similar qualities. That said, too much butteriness is overkill. You want your palate to be refreshed and cleansed by the beverage. Strive for balance, and when in doubt, bubbles go with every style of cheese.
  • Think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you have a super bomb, special cheese, talk to your local wine shop about what to serve with it.  Conversely, if you have a rare, 1959 Chateau Lafite, you want to make sure you find a cheese that does it justice.

Some of our favorite pairings for Haystack cheeses follow. Use them as a guideline for pairing similar styles:

Camembert or othery earthy, mushroomy bloomy-rinds: Beaujolais or other soft, fruity-driven red wines.

Snowdrop or other floral, grassy bloomy rinds: Sauvignon Blanc, Lambic, or Belgian Ales.

Haystack Peak or other grassy, slighty salty/ash-coated bloomy-rinds: Fruit-driven white wines like Pinots Gris, lambics, or Pilsner.

Queso de Mano or other nutty cheeses: Hefeweizen or light-to-full-bodied red wines.

Sunlight or Red Cloud or other stinky/washed rind cheeses: Bring on the beer, baby! Belgians, ales, hard cider, lambic, or floral IPA’s. Wine? Try fruit-driven whites like a dry Riesling.

From pilsners to porters, all beers pair well with cheese. Photo credit: Vine Pair

From pilsners to porters, all beers pair well with cheese. Photo credit: Vine Pair

 

 

 

 

Recipe: Grilled Sausage with Grapes, Wilted Bitter Greens, and Queso de Mano

Photo credit: BBC Good Food

Photo credit: BBC Good Food

In honor of American Cheese Month and this weekend’s Great American Beer Festival, we came up with a recipe that celebrates both:

GRILLED SAUSAGE WITH GRAPES, WILTED GREENS, AND QUESO DE MANO

This rustic, hearty dish is ideal for chilly nights. Serve with crusty bread for sopping up the juices, and a great lager.

Serves four

8 good-quality pork sausages, such as sweet or hot Italian

1/2 bunch seedless purple table grapes, washed, and stemmed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Extra virgin olive oil, (approximately 2-3 tablespoons)

Two sprigs thyme

1 medium shallot, finely minced

1/8 to 1/4 cup red wine

5  handfuls young arugula or other baby bitter greens

1/4 pound Queso de Mano, shaved with a vegetable peeler

 

Preheat the grill until coals are white hot, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. On an unlined baking sheet,  toss the grapes with just enough olive oil to lightly coat them; then season with salt and pepper, add the thyme, and toss once again to distribute seasoning.

Roast for 15 minutes, checking grapes every 5 minutes and using a spatula to move them around. The grapes are done when they’re slightly golden and a bit shriveled, and have released some of their juices.

Remove the pan of grapes from the oven; the juices should have caramelized somewhat. Pour the red wine into the hot pan, and use a spatula to scrape up the caramelized bits, being careful not to squash the grapes. Allow the residual heat from the pan to evaporate most of the wine so that you’re left with a thin glaze. Scrape the contents of baking sheet into a small frying pan and set aside.

While grapes are roasting, add the sausages to grill.Cookuntil done, place on a clean plate, and cover with foil to retain heat.

Reheat the grapes and glaze in the frying pan over medium-high heat, adding a bit more wine if necessary. Check seasoning, and remove from heat.

Divide the arugula amongst four dinner plates, making a mound of it in the center of each. Add two sausages to each plate, and then top with the grape/glaze mixture. Garnish the top of each with shaved Queso de Mano (use a vegetable peeler).

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