Époisses: Durian of Cheeses?

Le Renard s’en saisit, et dit : « Mon bon Monsieur, / Apprenez que tout flatteur / Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute : / Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute. » -Jean de La Fontaine

“Have you ever tried Époisses cheese?” I shook my head no. “Well, you know how they ban carrying the durian onto trains in Singapore because the fruit is so smelly? Époisses is sort of like the durian of cheeses.” With that in mind, I walked into the Fromagerie Gaugry cheese factory and my nose curled from the sharp olfactory assault of ripened cheese. The Époisses smell was pungent and earthy, somewhere between unwashed socks and West Coast hippies. As this NYT article highlights, its reputation and odor precede it. On the plus side, within a few minutes, my nostrils adjusted to the odor and I was breathing regularly again.

France boasts many stinky cheeses, but the Époisses is one of the most prominent cheeses of Burgundy, with production dating back to the 16th century. Over the years, Époisses has acquired the moniker “King of Cheeses,” and it was a favorite of Napoleon and famed gastronome Brillat-Savarin. At the 1815 Congress of Vienna, it seems that the delegates had a bit of free time after deciding what to do about Napoleon, and they held a tasting contest with 49 cheeses. Époisses came in second place after Brie, though one might argue that this was because Brie came from the Talleyrand region which sponsored the competition.

The cheese has held the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation since 1991, which means it is protected by a series of regulations to control its production process. This means the cows which produce the milk for the cheese must be specific breeds and must graze in certain areas of Côte d’Or to give the cheese qualities of the terroir. The raw milk is then transported and tested for dangerous bacteria, and during the production process, the cheese will be analyzed again for toxins. Already this year at Fromagerie Gaugry, there have been several cases of listeria contamination in farm-fresh milk, and those batches of cheese must be disposed. To make a standard 250 g cheese, you need 2 liters of milk. After the cheese is coagulated and pressed in molds, it is salted and aged. Every 2-3 days, each cheese is hand-washed with marc de Bourgogne brandy, and the rind gradually acquires an orange-red sheen. After 8-10 washes and at least 30 days of aging, the cheese is ready to eat.

Today, Fromagerie Gaugry produces approximately 840,000 cheeses each year using one million liters of milk, for annual sales of about €3 m. The largest share of these are sold in Burgundy (40%), with another 30% of cheeses sent to Paris and 20% exported overseas. A small portion of the pasteurized cheeses are sent to the US. Fromagerie Gaugry is also innovative in their green methane-recapture system; they collect the whey run-off from the cheese and send it to bacterial breakdown tanks. The resultant methane gas is used to heat the building and its water supply, supplying about a third of the company’s energy needs.

Aside from Gaugry, there are only three other makers of Époisses cheese. You can visit Fromagerie Gaugry for free, to watch the production process through gallery windows and read posters explaining what is happening. They also provide guided tours by appointment. Outside of the main production rooms, there is a mock-up with mannequins to demonstrate how cheese was traditionally made on the farm.

After hearing the technical details, we trooped off to Fromagerie Gaugry’s tasting room and wine bar. Armed with the AOC Époisses committee tasting grid, I carefully evaluated the appearance and taste of three Époisses cheeses. Is the cheese a regular cylinder with straight to convex sides? Is the face parallel or is there a cap? Is the color orange ivory or brick red? Is the rind wrinkled and shiny? Does the cheese smell strongly, and are there off aromas like ammonia, potato or cowshed? Is the heart of the cheese solid white, with a gooey beige paste between the center and rind? Finally, the flavor of the cheese: balanced, creamy, fruity, too salty, bitter or acidic? Are there any off-flavors like metal, soap or plastic, or is the cheese simply bland?

A cheese can be awarded up to 15 points in the visual and olfactory evaluation phase, and up to 25 points in the in-mouth analysis phase. I conducted blind sampling of three cheeses: a pasteurized milk factory-produced cheese, a raw-milk farm-produced cheese, and a raw-milk factory-produced Gaugry cheese. Though all three cheeses were good, the range of flavors was noticeable, from harsh sharpness to undersalted to perfectly creamy and tangy. Cheese #3 had a faint aftertaste that reminded me of Chinese black preserved eggs. In the end, though I had awarded it the least number of points based on appearance, cheese #2 won out for the most balanced flavor profile. As it turned out, this was the farm-produced raw milk cheese. Unfortunately, I will probably never be able to get this cheese again.

It appears that the nearest legal raw-milk Époisses to the United States can be found in Montreal, but I’ll be scouting out ways to discreetly stow cheese in my luggage when I go home for the holidays. Vacuum sealers and quadruple-wrapping of plastic bags, anyone?

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