Smells bad, tastes good

Decoding the mystery of washed-rind cheeses

BRATTLEBORO — If you've gotten this far in life, you've undoubtedly heard of Limburger cheese - likely from an old cartoon, where someone had used it as a dairy-related form of biological warfare.

In the world of animation, Limburger is identified by wavy green lines emanating from it, cartoon shorthand for “this smells terrible.” Its odor makes everyone run away, people and animals alike.

So what's the deal with Limburger? Is it a real cheese? Why does it smell so bad? Does it taste horrible, too?

Limburger is one of the cheeses that belongs to the “washed-rind” category. It is a real cheese, albeit not the most popular, at least in places where many Germans do not congregate. We'll get to why it smells so bad shortly.

And, no, it doesn't taste horrible. Once you trim away the rind, it has a slightly sweet, spicy flavor and is much milder than you'd expect.

Washed-rind cheeses tend to be some of the highest regarded cheeses, at least amongst cheesemongers and other industry professionals and fanatics. Their complexity and richness of flavor - even in pasteurized form - makes them a satisfying group of cheeses for the table, to be enjoyed simply as a snack, with no embellishments or further preparation necessary.

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The name of the category - “washed-rind” - is the key to understanding the character of the cheeses, Limburger included.

During the cheese's production and aging, the exterior (the rind) is washed, smeared, rinsed, or submerged in a liquid that alters its insides and outsides. (That's why, in the cheese world, sometimes this category is known as “smear-ripened.”)

Depending on the recipe for the specific cheese, this liquid can be brine (sometimes salt water) with herbs, beer, wine, aquavit, etc. Its effect on the cheese is to decrease its acidity.

This step makes the rind a welcome place for the growth of Brevibacterium linens, or B. linens, a friendly, beneficial bacterium that causes the interior to soften during ripening (just like in the bloomy-rind cheeses), the rind to turn sticky and pinkish-orange, and the aroma to be illustrated by wavy green lines. This cheese smells bad.

If you relied on smell alone, you might never eat this cheese - but then you'd be missing out. While flavor varies by individual cheese, some common taste experiences of washed-rind cheeses are: eggy, sweet, beefy, pungent, creamy, spicy, buttery, and mustardy.

It's rare that a washed-rind cheese tastes as assertive as it smells, and if it does, it often means the cheese is past its peak and is no longer good.

For those with a highly sensitive palate, I recommend trimming the rind. It can not only taste overwhelming, but its texture is often gritty. Then again, some people love the rind, so do what you like.

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You might have already had a washed-rind cheese and didn't know it. Some of the world's most loved cheeses fall in this category.

In addition to Limburger from Germany, there's its American doppelgänger: Liederkranz. Italy gives us Taleggio; Ardrahan is from Ireland. Not all Belgian Chimay has a washed-rind, but some of it does.

Oka comes from Canada. Switzerland gives us Försterkäse, which is one of my favorites. And although these cheeses aren't often thought of as washed-rinds because they are large in format and don't have soft pastes, Gruyère and Appenzeller also fall in this category.

Perhaps most of the best-loved washed-rinds come from France: Époisses de Bourgogne, Vacherin Mont d'Or, Reblochon, Alsatian Munster (not the same as Muenster, the orange spray-painted deli cheese), Livarot, and Pont l'Évêque.

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Of course, this being Vermont, we have a wealth of washed-rind cheeses made by local, artisan producers.

• Winnimere, made and aged by Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, is a small cows' milk cheese wrapped in spruce bark. It's based on Switzerland's Försterkäse, and it's also out-of-season, so you'll have to wait until January to get some. But it's worth the wait.

Jasper Hill ages Oma, but it's made by the Von Trapps - yes, those Von Trapps - in the Mad River Valley; this cows' milk cheese has a supple texture and a barnyard-y, earthy flavor.

Lazy Lady Farm in Westfield makes Barick Obama, a brick-shaped cows' milk cheese with a soft, elastic texture and a gently pungent flavor.

• Dorset, from Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, is made with all Jersey cows' milk, giving extra richness to the spicy cheese.

Twig Farm in West Cornwall makes a straightforwardly named Washed Rind Wheel, made most often with goats' milk, sometimes supplemented with a neighbor's cows' milk, and always full-flavored, gently spicy, and even a little woodsy, depending on the time of year.

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Of all the cheeses, those in the washed-rind category might be the most sensitive to the vagaries of plastic wrap. Their already-moist rinds can get really disgusting under the prolonged influence of suffocating wrappers and plasticizing chemicals.

If proper French-style cheese paper isn't available, store these cheeses in a zipper bag or a seal-tight container. Let the poor cheese breathe! Of course, the best thing to do is eat the cheese and not leave any you'd have to put away.

Serving washed-rind cheese is simple. These cheeses are so flavorful on their own, they need no accompaniment, and because they are so satisfying, most people find they only need a small amount to feel full and happy.

There are some nice foods to serve with washed-rind cheeses, such as grapes and cantaloupe. Some olive varieties go well, but be careful not to choose olives that are too salty, as these cheeses generally are salty enough.

Because this category of cheese is on the assertive side, it can stand up to robust salamis and cured meats, but again, be mindful of the saltiness.

Nearly any whole-grain or rye bread or cracker presents a perfect delivery from plate to mouth, but some of us like eating these cheeses all alone, with our fingers, or in the case of the runnier specimens, with a spoon.

No matter how you cut them, make sure you serve these, and all, cheeses at room temperature.

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