I got thinking the other day about smelly food and remembered the hot, sweaty and humid morning that Joanne and I walked Chatuchak Market in Bangkok.
Among the fruits, vegetables, dogs, chickens and lizards were stalls devoted to DURIAN – a spikey, basketball-size Asian vegetable. At the time, I had no idea what durian was. All I knew is that it announces its presence from afar. The closer we got to the durian stalls, the stinkier it got. I had no idea that people could eat this stuff…but I’m told that once you get past the putrid hull, the flesh inside is sweet and custard-like.
I will NEVER be able to get past the smell. And I am not alone in my opinion that the durian is unique in its putridness. The late great A.A. GILL, restaurant critic for the London Sunday Times, had this to say about it: “Durian horrifies travelers with the stench of sewage, stale vomit, surgical swabs and bat piss. It’s a vegetable that thinks it’s a cadaver.”
That led me to consider the stinky foods that I’ve grown to like. Obviously, cheese came to mind. While I could write about a host of foul fromages, I’ve narrowed the list to the ones I’ve actually tried and truly enjoyed.
But first, a primer: Cheese in America must be made with PASTEURIZED MILK. This involves heating the milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds – sufficient time to relegate our cheese to a FLAT NOTHINGNESS compared to the raw-milk cheeses of Europe.
By and large the cheeses that stink are EUROPEAN ones of the “rinsed rind” variety. And I don’t mean rinsed in Evian or San Pellegrino. We’re talking brine, brandy, wine, beer and other liquids that are thought to inhibit mold but encourage the bacteria that give cheese its distinctive aroma. Unfortunately they’re the same bacteria that cause STINKY FEET.
I remember my first encounter with LIMBURGER CHEESE. I was 6 or 7 and my uncle Don came home from the war in Europe. We all lived in central Illinois (Kewanee) and Uncle Don and Aunt Rose shared a house with our family as well as my grandmother. Whether Don had been in Limburg, Germany during the war, I’ll never know. Another thing I’ll never know is how such a beautiful little hamlet could produce such a vile-smelling product.
But I know this: Limburger was the foulest thing I had ever smelled in my life, even though three families in our house shared one toilet.
But then something happened: About once a week, usually Friday, Uncle Don would head downtown after work to buy provisions. Stopping first at the liquor store for beer, then at Steele’s Bakery for a loaf of pumpernickel (what the hell was THAT?), he’d proceed to the A&P for a red onion and a BRICK of Limburger cheese.
Upon arriving home, he’d ask if anyone wanted a sandwich. There were few takers. But one day I stepped up and tried Don’s sandwich of red onion and Limburger cheese on fresh pumpernickel. The combination of these ingredients had a peculiar effect. Yes, the cheese smelled like ass and ripe underarms, but once I got past the odor…well, I actually liked the flavors, which were pleasant with earthy grass and a slight tanginess.
Limburger sandwiches (occasionally with yellow French’s Mustard) became almost a Friday night ritual at 205 Central Blvd, Kewanee, Illinois.
I didn’t get a beer.
Joanne and I were fortunate enough to travel during our marriage. And food was always the primary focus.
So it was, on a rainy morning, that we took a day trip from Paris to Camembert, France to check out the cheese. Now, Camembert is rather low on the smell scale – particularly in the United States. FRENCH CAMEMBERT, on the other hand, is decidedly and unsurprisingly more rustic, less refined, earthier and more buttery than the American product. It has hints (but only hints) of barnyard and soiled laundry.
Notably, French Camembert can ONLY be made with UNpasteurized milk. By law!!
AMI DU CHAMBERTIN is made in the region of Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy, France. It’s another stinker that is washed in Marc de Bourgogne brandy, and the smell gets more pungent as the cheese ages. But the interior is creamy, salty, velvety and buttery, as well as slightly sweet. It’s actually quite good. Once you get past the smell. Brillat Savarin, the 18th century gourmand, described it as a “peculiar combination of vomit and seaweed.” Ami du Chambertin is NOT WELCOME in the fridge. Others have described the odor as cat piss (not to be confused with A.A. Gill’s bat piss.)
Also from Burgundy is a cheese called EPOISSES DE BOURGOGNE. It hails from a village near Auxere and has been called the “funkmaster” of cheese. Its overwhelming stench reportedly has caused people to cross the street to avoid the smell. In Paris, the cheese has been BANNED from public transportation. People say it reminds them of an “outdoor fish market without an awning.” But if you survive the foul smell of the rind, you’ll be richly rewarded with a sweet, salty, yeasty flavor. Brillat Savarin dubbed it “the king of all cheeses.”
But had he thought to consider the competition on the other side of the Channel?
Let’s head to the picturesque countryside near the Cotswolds in western England. Here lives THE STINKING BISHOP.
Far be it for me to besmirch the hygiene of clerics, so please note: Stinking Bishop refers to the pears that go into the brandy used to wash this remarkably rank cheese – judged by the Brits to be the STINKIEST in all the realm. I don’t know why I remember this, but In 2005 the cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit did a bit where Gromit revived an unconscious Wallace by placing a wedge of Stinking Bishop under his nose.
Joanne and I have visited the Cotswolds a number of times and there are several very good restaurants in the area. At one of the best, DORMEY HOUSE in Broadway, we treated ourselves to an entrée called the “Best End of Lamb.” The wine flowed freely, and at the conclusion of the meal the waiter suggested that we try the local cheese….Stinking Bishop. I don’t know if it was the wine talking, but I said “Hell YES!” (loudly enough to drown out Joanne’s “Hell, NO!”)
I was served a slice of something that hovered between a rotting corpse and a rugby locker room. I think I gagged – but then downed a slug of wine and DUG IN.
If you can excuse the eau du rugby player smell, the cheese was EXQUISITE: creamy, mellow and quite delicate. It paired nicely with the red wine and was served with fresh figs and walnuts.
Now, I have excluded several cheeses, among them the BLUE CHEESES, which are only mildly malodorous, as well as GOAT CHEESE. But goat cheese puzzles me because I love all the varieties I have tasted, and yet many of my friends tell me they’re put off by the taste and smell, which they characterize as “goaty.”
So I investigated and learned this: Not all that many years ago, goat cheese makers were forced to hold their milk at the farm for several days (way too long) ‘til they had accumulated enough milk to justify a pickup from the milk truck.
I also learned that the fresher the milk, the better the cheese. After a few days, the milk starts to sour a bit, and becomes bitter. Today, with the number of farmers raising goats, that’s no longer the issue. So perhaps that was part of the problem my friends had with goat cheese.
Of course, another thing with goaty cheese could be….
During the breeding season, when a doe goes into heat, she’s penned up with a buck, who secretes a pheromone that stimulates the production of hormones that change the flavor of her milk. So instead of the cheese being mild, slightly tangy and creamy, it becomes GOATY and ANIMALIC, with that strong musky, he-man odor (that Joanne has always found so appealing in her husband). This is not a defect. It is a feature. Some folks prefer their cheese this way.
So BEWARE THIS SPRING…
…because BILLY’S IN THE BUNKHOUSE!!!!