Life On The Wire: Is That Why the MBTA Smells?
Its stink is notorious, its packaging is iconic (even if you don’t quite know what it is) and its flavor is sublime.
I am of course talking about Époisses de Bourgogne AOC.
Hailing from the Auxois and Terra Plain (that’s in Burgundy in case you’ve forgotten your French geography) this washed rind was almost wiped out by the world wars and saved in the 1960’s. At one point the original foodie (or at least the original modern foodie, take that James Beard) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin named it the king of cheeses, and Napoleon was a fan of its funk.
Created sometime in or near the village of Époisses in the mid 1500’s by monks, of course. Because all the best/most legendary washed rinds were created by monks; look at Langres, Munster [Gerome], Port Salut, Liverot, Pont l’Eveque, Morbier, Soummaintrain etc.. But that’s a blog post for another day.
After the monks left the area (thanks to the French revolution and a governmental land grab) the recipe was “gifted” to the farmers, their wives in actuality. Époisses de Bourgone survived political and governmental intrigue but was almost defeated by that horseman War in the 20th century. When the boys marched off to war the women were left to tend to the farms and herds and with half (or less) of the help absent, cheese making fell by the wayside.
And as so often in cheese making history (among other professions and trades) most of the cheese making technique and lore was taught master to apprentice with little being written down. So when the boys don’t come home, (and the boys that made it home can’t make a living on a farm and there’s better opportunities in cities where you don’t have to work dawn to dusk breaking your back) time honored trades and goods become endangered. It doesn’t matter if its one of the best things on earth and it has piles of medals and accolades, if there’s no one to make it and/or they can’t make a living doing it, it disappears into legend. Like the original methodology for Damascus steel or how to build a big ass pyramid in the middle of a desert or how to fold a fitted sheet.
Back to Époisses…
Enter the Berthauts, Robert and Simone, around 1960 who didn’t want to see Époisses de Bourgogne die out as it was about to do and set about to save it. After talking to the village’s old cheesemaking women they recovered the recipe and methodology and started up production once more and now its one of the most famous (or infamous depending on how you smell it) cheeses. It even gained AOC status, or appellation d’origine contrôlée, in 1990 which protects the name and production of Époisses in the same way that Champagne is protected, among others.
The AOC legal system originated in France, originally to protect the wine industry and now applies to more then just wine or cheese, and has been adopted by other countries; if you see AOC/AOP/DOP/DO/GU on a label you know that product is protected and is guaranteed to meet a certain standard.
And what are those standards I can hear you asking? That its made with whole milk from Montibéliardes, Brunes, or French Simmental cows; it coagulated using lactobacilli cultures; that means its “set” primarily with lactic acid instead of only rennet. And most importantly, gets washed two to three times a week for 6-8 weeks with Marc de Bourgogne, liquor made from the skins and seeds (kinda like grapa) from burgundy wine production. These baths are what give Époisses its sticky orange rind and infamous odor, by creating an environment for brevibacterium linens to grow.
And what an odor, Époisses is so notoriously smelly that is banned on the Parisian Metro (but not the MBTA, so that might explain the smell), but its actually not that bad. Does it smell, yes, is it “abandon your house because you’ll never get the smell out?” No. And that smell is part of the experience, and if you can’t enjoy it you should tolerate it because the cheese hiding under the funk it worth it.
Rich and densely creamy with notes of egg yolk, a boozy fruitness around the rind, heavy cream, yeasty brioche, ham, cheese custard; and yes, a hint of barnyard. The cheese seems to take over your body as you eat it, smell and flavor invade your entire respiratory system, the flavor and texture take control of your mouth, and the memory takes over your brain for the rest of your life.
If you insist on doing anything other than eating it with a spoon (don’t give us that look) you should pair it with speck or a garlicy salame, cornichon or dark berry jam like blackberry or damson; crackers are a solid no, a baguette or other fresh bread is a the only thing you should schmear it on.
Milk: Pasteurized Cow
Rennet: Traditional Animal
Size: 250g (that’s a half pound in American)
Époisses de Bourgogne AOC regulations (in French) (https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000022825025&dateTexte=&categorieLien=id)
The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison
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