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Culture’s Believe It or Not: Stinky Cheese


We’ve all been there—some of us more than others. Everyone, at some point, has realized they smell terrible in public. If you can smell your feet, so can everyone else is a terrible realization to have, and it usually makes you sweat, which blasts further holes in your already sinking social ship. There are some people out there that seem to take stinkiness as a point of pride. I have an actor friend who was once working on a Broadway play but apparently smelled so bad he was threatened with dismissal if he didn’t shower. For his birthday he got 18 bars of soap and washcloth from the cast. They all went unused. This Believe It or Not post is about cheeses like my friend: offensively stinky and proud of it.

It’s no secret some cheese is stinky, hence the endless amount of fart/cheese crossover jokes. But there are some cheeses, one or two specifically, that are head and shoulders above the rest on the offensive odor chart. The first and perhaps most notorious is Époisses, and it’s got some myths around its stink.

BonFromage_Epoisses_ftr
A retirement fund made of cheese. Where do we sign up?

Époisses (pronounced “eh-pwahss”) is an ancient and smelly cheese from the Burgundy region of France. Created originally in the 1600s by a group of enterprising monks from L’Abbaye de Citeaux, it was considered quite the delicacy at the time. The monks continued to make their cheese there until the Abbey fell into disrepair in the 19th century, when they decided to pass their recipes and techniques on to the farmers that had supplied them with milk for the last two centuries. The farmers realized the monks had been running a racket and started making their own. After enjoying a successful run as a quality cheese it ran into a roadblock in the early part of last century: the Nazis. Yes, World War II so devastated Époisses’s home region that it essentially wiped out each of the more than 300 different cheesemakers. A decade later, the enterprising Robert and Simone Berthaut smelled the cheese and the moolah and set up shop, reviving the historical wheel.

The cheese, as it turns out, was as good as it was stinky. It was the particular favorite of a certain diminutive Emperor, and was called the King of All Cheeses by famed gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. It’s got a soft and unctuous texture and all kinds of flavors, ranging from sweet to savory and clean to metallic, depending how far along in your bite you are.

The reason it’s in this post is the smell, and smell it does. During its aging process the wheel undergoes several hand washings in pomace brandy, allowing yeast and fermenting agents to take over. The result is orange on the outside, gooey on the inside, and stinky all the way through.

Époisses is so stinky that stories about its legality in public have been brought forth time and time again. The story posits that, due to the inescapable aroma of the fermented curd, it’s illegal to takeon French public transportation. While this is a great anecdote, the only thing smellier than the cheese is the liar who made the story up—it’s not banned at all. But if you find yourself in Paris and have to get on the train with a wheel of the stuff, just wrap it in cabbage leaves and you’re all good!

"I like cheese so give me money money money."Photo Credit: Racheshop.de

“I like cheese so give me money money money.”
Photo Credit: Racheshop.de

While Époisses may be the most well known example of smelliness in action, it isn’t even the smelliest cheese on the market—something that, because science, we can now tell definitively. A little over 12 years ago a real scientist/cheese nerd made a robotic nose to measure the stinkiness of his favorite wheels.

Yes, Dr. Stephen White (definitely not pictured) of Cranfield University in England really made a machine with “sensors to detect different chemical aromas . . . [that] is connected to a computer which analyses the different smells.” Equipped with probably the most useless piece of scientific equipment since someone specifically designed a reflex hammer, Dr. White set out on his quest for more grant money and oh, yeah, to find which cheese was the stinkiest. Well he got an answer, and it wasn’t Époisses: it was the cheese’s not too distant relative Vieux Boulogne.

Vieux Boulogne is also made in France, and uses a washed-rind technique much like that of Époisses, the difference being that Vieux Boulogne is washed with beer while Époisses is washed with brandy. The study concluded that aging had nothing to do with the strength of smell, but washed rinds have everything to do with pungency.

"C'est la vie, epoisses, c'est la vie."

“C’est la vie, Époisses, c’est la vie.”

So go to France and eat your stinky heart out—just don’t bring any back on an airplane, because the drug dogs will be all over you.

Feature Photo Credit: lineartestpilot | Shutterstock

Brook O'Meara-Sayen

Brook O’Meara-Sayen is a journalism student at Emerson College forever on the hunt for that last ten minutes of sleep. In his spare time he enjoys reading, Merle Haggard, and spending Friday evenings trying to break his personal record for most cheddar eaten in one sitting.