The Commons
Food and Drink

Big white clouds: A field guide to bloomy-rind cheeses

Originally published in The Commons issue #155 (Wednesday, June 6, 2012).

BRATTLEBORO—Pretty much everyone knows about brie: spongy, ivory-colored cheese that starts to ooze if left out on the counter for too long, covered with this bright-white, cottony sort of stuff that is maybe edible (or at least you hope it’s edible, since you’re the one who usually eats it). People like it for parties.

But do you really know brie?

Do you know that, within its specific category — the bloomy-rind cheeses — there are much better cheeses than brie, especially considering the money you’re spending on that cheese?

Yes, cheeses with better and more nuanced flavors, that ripen properly, and that might be made down the road from where you live are available at better cheese shops everywhere. (For more information on why brie isn’t a great choice, see sidebar.)

So, how can you identify these bloomy-rind cheeses, especially among the hundreds of varieties staring at you from the confines of the cheese counter?

It’s easy! Look for a cheese that looks like a flat, white, perfectly round cloud. Look for that cottony, velvety white rind.

* * *

Bloomy-rind is one of two categories comprising the category called soft-ripened cheeses (the other is washed-rind, also known as smear-ripened), so named because they, unlike nearly every other cheese, aren’t meant to firm up as they age.

Soft-ripened cheeses are usually much smaller than other cheeses and they have a softer texture throughout their natural life.

When one of these cheeses is young, its core might be flaky or chalky, getting softer and almost liquid as time progresses. The skin (rind) surrounding the paste is edible but might be somewhat leathery.

There’s no rule saying you must eat the rind, and some people find its flavor too strong and the texture unpleasant. Expect the rind to be much earthier than the paste.

This category of cheeses has a very specific aroma: damp, musty, dirt-floor basement, with an odd sort of astringent undertone and the faintest hint of ammonia.

(When I say “faint hint of ammonia,” I mean it. If the smell of ammonia hits you in the face like a ton of bricks, leave the cheese unwrapped on the counter for twenty minutes. Then go back and try a taste. If it tastes like ammonia, I’m sorry, but the cheese is overripe, and you’ll have to throw it away. You can’t trim away that horrible flavor.)

The flavor of bloomy-rind cheeses will vary depending on which animal’s, or animals’, milk is being used, what the animals are eating, the time of year the cheese is being made, the terroir (the specific characteristics of the geography where the animals graze and the cheese is made, such as ocean-side, high pastures, and scrubby hills), and the skill of the cheesemaker.

That said, some flavors will be consistent across this category of cheese because of the way the cheese is made.

Expect flavors of fresh cream, damp dirt-floor basement, white button mushrooms, a little salt, a teensy hint of metal (especially in the rind) and, if the cheese is very ripe, perfectly cooked scrambled eggs.

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