“Washing cheese in brine and other solutions dates back to the Middle Ages, when European monks discovered that the practice stimulated the growth of bacteria that gave the cheese less acidic, more pungent flavours, thus making abstention from meat a lot more bearable. In research conducted at Cranfield University, the beery, washed-rind Vieux Boulogne was declared the world’s smelliest cheese, outstinking even marc-washed Époisses, which is banned on public transport in France.”
Niki Segnit, The Flavour Thesaurus
Recently I went on a fabulous, frenetic cookery course at the Woodspeen Restaurant near Newbury.
It was one of the fullest, and most informative courses I’ve ever been on (and I’ve done the lot) and it was refreshing that lunch was not what we’d just cooked, but instead it was provided by the restaurant.
A selection of cheeses was on offer, and one of them was a Cote Hill Blue, which Peter Eaton, Head Chef of the Woodspeen told us had been exclusively washed for the restaurant with damson whisky.
I was intrigued; I regularly make industrial quantities of damson gin with great success judging by the rate at which it disappears. I’d tried making damson whisky, and in my view it was a waste of good whisky; nevertheless this cheese was really very good.
What exactly was a washed rind cheese, and what difference did the thing it was washed with make to the taste?
The washed-rind cheese technique
The yeasts develop
At the beginning of the ripening, maturing stage of cheesemaking the whey begins to dry off, and yeasts begin to grow. It’s the yeasts which gives the structure (containing the cheese within) to the rind as well as the colour and texture of the rind, and, of course, they also give a lot of flavour compounds.
As the yeasts grow and develop they reduce the acidity of the surface of the cheese, thus making it a more hospitable home for the bacteria which will provide further flavour.
The important role of the bacteria
It’s these bacteria, Brevibacterium Linens (generally referred to as B-linens) or more accurately, the flavour they contribute, which the washed-rind cheesemaker is after. B-linens (sometimes other bacteria are used) don’t just contribute flavour. As the bacteria form on the skin of the cheese they release the sulphur gases it contains, resulting in a pretty whiffy pong. They also contribute to the formation of the soft rind, giving it a pinky-orangey hue.
To further encourage their growth the cheesemaker will brush the rind regularly with brine, a salt solution (Talleggio is washed in sea-water). The yeasts have already reduced the acidity of the cheese, but the added moisture and salinity of the rind-washing process make the exterior of the cheese even more inviting and encouraging to the B-linens.
A further advantage of rind-washing is the prevention of undesirable mould from forming (mould – remember penicillin – kills bacteria).
How do the B-linens bacteria form?
Sometimes the B-linens will form naturally; other cheesemakers will mix some in at the beginning of the cheesemaking process (together with the starter cultures); some will spray, or brush them on after the cheese has come out of the mould – this process is known as smear-ripening.
The application of the brine
About five or six days after the cheese has originally been made, the brine solution will be regularly applied (every two or three days) using a paper cloth, a cheese cloth, or a soft brush, depending on the robustness of the forming rind – some are very delicate. This process is likely to go on for a month or so.
Why supplement the brine with alcohol?
Brandy, whisky, wine, beer and mead all contribute to the flavour and depth of the cheese.
The alcohol also enables the cheese to remain in better condition for longer.
And it helps to prevent the rind from cracking.
What are the common characteristics of rind-washed cheese?
Rind-washed cheese will have a soft, sunset-coloured rind, moist and a little sticky. Sometimes the rind is a bit gritty. All over the internet you’ll see information saying that this is called by the salts in the brine wash. In fact, this isn’t the case, as you will discover if you read Cheese Science Toolkit’s excellent post. The grittiness on soft rind-washed cheeses (Taleggio and Époisses, for example, not Gruyère) is not caused by sodium chloride (the salt in the brine).
You’ll remember the reduction of acidity caused by yeasts? The bacteria continue this process. This causes the minerals in the cheese (calcium, phosphate, and magnesium) to ‘precipitate’ (to want to form a solid) together with the gases formed by the bacteria (carbon dioxide and ammonia gas) to form various crystals, mostly calcium carbonate, magnesium ammonium phosphate, and calcium phosphate crystals.
Rind-washed cheeses also have a smell to stun – but there should be nary a whiff of ammonia. The smell – reminiscent of smelly feet – comes from the presence of a colourless gas, methanethiol, which includes an atom of sulphur. Farts and bad breath also contain methanethiol – just saying….
However, although the smell may be a bit in-your-face, the taste will be sophisticated – more disceet.
Aside from these characteristics these cheeses come in a range of textures from the semi-soft (Vacherin Mont d’Or) to the semi-hard, grateable, Gruyère.
What’s the difference between a rind-washed cheese and a bloomy cheese, or a winkled-rind cheese?
Bloomy cheeses (Brie, Camembert, Cambazola, Brillat-Savarin) and rind-washed cheeses are both surface-ripened, but bloomy cheeses are formed by the soft, fluffy white mould on the exterior of the cheese, developing the creamy cheese inside. The formation of this mould is encouraged by a coat of a fungus – Penicillium candidum, (or a mix – for example, Bath Soft Cheese is made from four parts penicillin candidum and one part Geotrichum) or it can be introduced earlier on in the cheesemaking process. In any case, bloomy cheeses are characterised by the fluffy white rind (which most people eat), and a very creamy, almost liquid (you may need to eat it with a spoon) interior.
Winkled-rind cheeses are formed in the same way as bloomy cheeses but the fungus used is predominantly Geotrichum candidum. Examples are La Tur, Saint Marcellin, Pavé Cobble, Bijou and Crottin, Bonne Bouche (from Vermont, USA), or La Luna (from Holy Goat in Australia).
Rind-washed cheeses on the other hand can be easily distinguished by their peach-coloured rind and smelly feet pong!
However, rather confusingly, the fabulous Vacherin Mont d’Or – very creamy inside, pale white-cream, slightly fluffy, velvety, outside, is actually a rind-washed cheese. It’s washed in brine for three weeks, and then stuffed into its famous spruce bark container (it’s the stuffing process which results in the ploughed appearance of its surface).
What to drink with a rind-washed cheese
One obvious choice with alcohol-rinsed cheeses is to drink the hooch which has been used to bathe them.
Otherwise they go well with a dark Belgian beer; or a can-hold-its-own fruity red, for example a Pinot Noir or a Côtes du Rhône.
How to store rind-washed cheeses
I prefer not to keep them in the fridge – it stops the natural ripening process, but keep them under glass in a cheese bell.
NB – this is not an exhaustive list!
- Ardrahan (cows’ milk from Cork, Ireland)
- Blackall Gold (cows’ milk from the Woombye cheesery, from Australia)
- Brick (cows’ milk from Wisconsin, USA)
- Canterbury Cobble (cows’ milk, from Canterbury in the UK)
- Chimay (cows’ milk from Belgium – see also Chimay ‘à la bière’ under ‘beer and ale’ below)
- Dorset (from Bardwell Farm, cows’ milk, Virginia, USA)
- Durrus (cows’ milk, Cork, Ireland)
- Fiancé des Pyrénées (goats’ milk, from the French Pyrenees)
- Golden Cenarth (cows’ milk, from west Wales)
- Gruyère (cows’ milk, from Switzerland), this includes Beaufort
- Hooligan (cows’ milk from Cato Corner Farm, Connecticut, USA)
- Jensen’s Red (cows’ milk, Victoria, Australia)
- Langres (made in Champagne-Ardennes, France. It’s similar to, but milder than Époisses, devotees pour a little marc de Bourgogne into the shallow hollow on the top.)
- L’Etivaz (cows’ milk from the Vaud alps, in Switzerland)
- Le Montagnard (cows’ milk from Lorraine, in France – there is also a Lo Montagnard made in the Val d’Aosta in Italy). I have read unsubstantiated reports that this is sometimes washed with plum brandy.
- Limberger (cows’ milk from Limbourg, Belgium)
- Livarot (cows’ milk from Normandy, France). This cheese, according to Niki Segnit, in her Flavour Thesaurus, goes particularly well with walnut. “It’s one of the few flavours that can rise to the challenge of a pungent washed rind. Its bitter, tanic quality is apt to cut through the fatty headiness of the cheese, and its sweetness peeps through too. Walnut bread, walnut crackers, or wet walnuts when they’re in season are all very good simply paired with a Livarot.”
- Maroilles (cows’ milk from the north of France – also including similar cheeses in the ‘Maroilles’ family – Baguette Laonnaise, Boulette d’Avesnes, Boulette de Cambrai, Cœur d’Arras, Cœur d’Avesnes, Dauphin, Gris de Lille (see Vieux Lille, above), Guerbigny and Rollot)
- Milawa King River Gold (cows’ milk, north-east Victoria, Australia)
- Morbier (cows’ milk from Franche-Compté, France)
- Mountain Man (cows’ milk from L’Artisan cheesery, Australia)
- Munster (aka Muenster-géromé) (cows’ milk from Alsace-Lorraine in France)
- Pont-l’Évêque (cows’ milk from Normandy, France)
- Rachel (goats’ milk, from Somerset, England)
- Reblochon (cows’ milk from Haute-Savoie, France)
- Red Hawk (cows’ milk, Cowgirl Creamery, California, USA)
- Rollright (cows’ milk, from Oxfordshire, England)
- St Nectaire (cows’ milk, from the Auvergne, France
- Schloss (cows’ milk, California, USA)
- Taleggio (cows’ milk, from northern Italy)
- Tilsiter – originally made by Dutch immigrants who’d moved to the town of Tilsit in East Prussia, and who were trying to recreate, unsuccessfully, Gouda. Tilsit is now known as Sovetsk, and is part of Russia. This cows’ milk cheese is made these days mainly in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
- Vacherin Mont d’Or (cows’ milk, Switzerland – and an adjoining part of France)
- Vieux Lille (aka Puant de Lille or Gris de Lille) – this is a type of Maroilles – see above
- Woodside Figaro (goats’ cheese, southern Australia)
“It’s one of the few flavours that can rise to the challenge of a pungent washed rind. Its bitter, tanic quality is apt to cut through the fatty headiness of the cheese, and its sweetness peeps through too. Walnut bread, walnut crackers, or wet walnuts when they’re in season are all very good simply paired with a Livarot.”
Niki Segnit, The Flavour Thesaurus
Additional marc (the local pomace brandy)
- Ami du Chambertin (cows’ milk from Burgundy, France)
- Époisses de Bourgogne (cows’ milk made not far from Dijon, France)
- Petit Gaugry (a sort of mini Époisses, cows’ milk made not far from Dijon, France)
- Soumaintrain (cows’ milk from Burgundy, France)
- Trou du Cru (cows’ milk from Burgundy, France)
Additional cider brandy
- Goddess (cows’ milk, from Somerset, England)
Additional damson whisky
- Cote Hill Blue (cows’ milk cheese made in Lincolnshire, England) – exclusive to the Woodspeen. Technically a blue cheese cannot be categorised as a washed-rind cheese as it’s not ripened from the outside….
Additional perry (a sort of cider made from pears)
- Stinking Bishop (cows’ milk made out of the particular pear used to make the perry, Gloucestershire, England)
Additional pear mash and poire Williams eau de vie
- Despearado, (cows’ milk from Cato Corner Farm, Connecticut, USA)
Additional white wine
- Försterkäse (cows’ milk from Toggenburg, Switzerland – the name means ‘lumberjack’s cheese’)
- Gubbeen (cows’ milk from west Cork, Ireland)
- Tomme de Chèvre (goats’ milk, from various regions of France – this cheese is washed in a sweet Muscadet)
Additional mead (mead is made from honey)
- Oxford Isis (cows’ milk from Oxfordshire, England). Follow this link for a post on Oxford Isis – a terrific cheese.
Additional beer and ale
- Chimay ‘à la bière’ is washed with Chimay trappist beer. It was originally made by the monks at Stourmont Abbey in Belgium. It’s a cows’ milk cheese.
- Renegade Monk (cows’ milk, Feltham’s Farm, England – washed in Funky Monkey ale This is a hybrid cheese with some soft white cheese and some blue cheese attributes)
- Winnimere (Cows’ milk from northern Vermont, USA – this is a sort of Vacherin-Mont d’Or cheese, made during the winter months)
- Vieux Boulogne – the world’s smelliest cheese. (cows’ milk, made in France near Boulogne)