Intern Gabrielle Roman looks into what makes French cheeses tick for her blog series, Bon Fromage. Meant to answer any questions you might have but were afraid to ask about cheese made from the country famous for fromage, each post will focus on a specific cheese and take a deep dive into its history and production. Take the plunge and demystify the world of French cheese. If you missed it, check out last week’s post on Valençay, Napoleon’s bane.
Don’t worry, I would never make you read through an entire post guessing how to pronounce the full name of this cheese. Although the name Époisses can stand alone, tacking on the “de Bourgogne” at the end lets you know its production was entirely in the region of Burgundy. Because Époisses is supposed to be made in Burgundy, I think it’s only fair to give geography its due and learn how to pronounce the full name. When pronouncing Époisses, drop off the last several letters and avoid saying the “oi” like you would in boil or purloin. In this case, the “oi” forms a “wah” sound, making Époisses sound like “ay-PWOSS,” with the emphasis on the second half of the word. As for Bourgogne, the first “g” is hard and the second is soft. Divide the word into three syllables and sound out “bore-go-nyah.” Your best bet is to go ask a native French speaker to make a recording for you in order to get all the subtleties, but this guide should do for now.
The history of Époisses stretches back hundreds of years (much in the manner of other French cheeses we’ve looked at) and its origins are a little murky (also not unusual). What we do know is the cheese got its name after the town it was originally produced in, which is about 150 miles southeast of Paris. Some sources say Époisses was first produced in the 1600s; others argue it was the early 1500s. Either way, Époisses is at least 400 years old. Its production started in a Cistercian community (read: monks) in the town of Époisses. If you remember back to the history of Maroilles, that cheese was produced by farmers at the request of local monks. Époisses, on the other hand, was made by the monks themselves at L’Abbaye de Citeaux. Monks lived and made Époisses for nearly two hundred years before they picked up and left.
A whole TV series could be made about the origins of Époisses and why the monks mysteriously abandoned the town—I’m sure Hollywood writers could come up with a great conspiracy—but I unfortunately don’t have any intrigue to provide. I don’t know why the monks left, just that before they did, they taught the local people how to make the cheese so that traditions of Époisses passed down for many generations. This system worked great. In the early 1900s, Époisses was still in demand—more than 300 farms in France produced it.
World War II put Époisses on the endangered list and nearly wiped it out altogether. When all the men left for war, the population dropped significantly and the women who took over the farms did not have the time to focus on cheesemaking processes. This could have meant the end of Époisses, but in 1956 Robert and Simone Berthaut breathed new life into the stinky cheese. Using the knowledge of a small group of people who still knew the traditional methods, they grew Époisses back into popularity and today the Berthaut label is still the predominant producer of Époisses. The significance of the Berthuats’ efforts are maybe most impressive for the fact that Époisses gained AOC status in 1991. Now all Époisses must be made in Burgundy. Not only did one family bring an entire cheese back from the brink, but its production methods and geographic origin are completely protected. How’s that for impressive?
All right, so there’s this traditional method of production that now has to follow AOC regulations. How do you make Époisses, then? The most distinctive addition to Époisses is marc de Bourgogne, or marc for short. Marc is a pomace brandy local to Burgundy. What the heck does that mean? After grapes are pressed and all the juices from that process are diverted to the wine, the leftover skins, stems, and seeds of the grapes are mixed together to form a pomace. Left to ferment, this pomace turns into marc, or a brandy made from pomace.
Marc is used to wash Époisses as it ages, which lends the cheese its distinctive color, smell, and even adds to the taste. The marc allows Bacterium linens mold to develop which makes the rind of the cheese a red-orange color. According to AOC regulations no dyes may be used in the production of the cheese, so that color you see on Époisses is all thanks to fermented grape remains and bacteria growth. Yum.
Other AOC regulations determine that Époisses must be made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, specifically from Brown Swiss cows of the French Simmental and Montbeliarde breeds. The cows have to be fed a diet that is 85 percent food from the geographic area of production—more than even required for the Lacuane sheep that make milk for Roquefort. Curds must be cut rather than broken by hand and are handled gently, allowed to drain naturally. Producers want Époisses to retain as much moisture as possible, which lends to the texture of the cheese.
You see, Époisses is a soft cheese. A really soft cheese. When aged for forty days, it’s like the texture of a pudding—if you let it reach room temperature. And you should really let it reach room temperature. The softness means you’ll see a lot of pictures of people eating this cheese with a spoon, and it’s often spread onto bread and crackers because it is so soft. Like all washed-rind cheeses, Époisses stinks but the interior tastes milder than the stinky exterior. My personal favorite description of Époisses was from Murray’s cheese shop, which called it “a custardy bacon bomb.” In addition to the meaty taste of the cheese, you’ll also get salt and butter and maybe earthy and nutty notes.
Époisses is always served in small rounds that are either 10 or 18 cm in diameter, or about 4 to 7 inches. They are stored in circular, wooden boxes. Not only do these boxes make the cheese look fancy, but they serve as an effective way to transport it, especially considering how soft and prone to damage Époisses is during transportation.
Like Valençay, it’s unlikely you’ll ever find AOC-approved Époisses in a US cheese shop. Because it’s made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, the cheese must age for 60 days before crossing US borders. Époisses typically ages for 4–5 weeks but doesn’t sit on shelves for weeks and weeks after that. It’s really looking like time to buy that plane ticket overseas.
If you’re disappointed about the lack of Napoleon this week, fear not! He returns. Although he never stabbed Époisses with a sword (that we know of), it was apparently one of his favorite cheeses. So that adds more points for Napoleon on our culture king count. Not only was Époisses the favorite of an emperor, but it was also the favorite of one of France’s most famous gastronomes. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826) was a politician and philosopher but gained fame as an epicure and has all sorts of pithy sayings regarding style and food. He famously declared Époisses to be “the king of cheese.” I don’t know if this was an intentional challenge to Roquefort, but I’ll leave you to taste both and decide what you think.
culture king count:
First place: Charlemagne with 5 points (as overseer of all things goat and essentially creating France)
Second place: Napoleon Bonaparte with 3 points (Valençay, Époisses, and some serious swagger)
Third place: Charles VI with 2 points (Roquefort and Maroilles)
(Tied for) Fourth: Philip II, Louis IX, Francis I with 1 point (Maroilles)