On washed rind cheeses...
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Washed Rind cheeses have been around since the Middle Ages and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with a distinctive character. Monks are closely associated with those cheeses and many more, their strict religious diet meant they had to abstain from eating any meat for long periods of time, but they could eat the cheese, Maroilles, our star cheese today was created in the 10th Century by a monk in Maroilles, Northern France, around the same time some benedictine monks emigrated to Alsace and later created another famous washed rind cheese, Munster, further South in the Alps other Monks were busy cross breeding cows and clearing forests to create pastures in the Abondance valley.
As a matter of fact we have to thank them for having maintained and developed such knowledge during the so called Dark Ages.
The process of washing applies mostly to soft and semi soft cheeses, it indeed helps those to mature while keeping them soft and supple, and contributes in developing their great flavour.
Washed Rind cheeses are bathed or scrubbed with pure brine or one to which may be added ferments, local wine, local brandy, local beer, local cider,… .the process will be repeated during days or weeks in some cases in selected conditions that will favour those organisms that are ripening your cheese. This growth on the surface is not exclusively made of Brevibacterium linens, yet often dominated by it, we French call it “ferment du rouge”, red ferment. It colonizes the surface of the cheese with the helping hand of the cheese affineur, the rind’s surface becomes sticky and orange/red releasing a characteristic penetrating locker smell.
The rind is edible, though if your cheese has just reached maturation, it may be overpowering. Indeed ammonia, a by product of maturation makes itself feel stronger as the cheese ripens, it will be your ripeness indicator, too much of it cannot be good, yet a slight ammonia smell is not to be feared, it provides a kick to some cheese lovers, an acquired taste to others, feel free to eat it or cut it off if you don’t like the sharpness it provides. Bear in mind that ammonia is volatile so let the cheese breathe, it will dissipate and make your very ripe cheese a whole lot more palatable. The heart of the cheese and the rind can be enjoyed together or separately. Epoisses for instance may have a daunting rind so you will cut a flap on top of your cheese and reach for its meat with a spoon.
My favourite Maroilles
It was invented in the 10th century in the Abbey of Maroilles, it quickly grew to fame, and was noted as the preferred cheese of several French kings. October 1st is still celebrated as Maroilles Day in the region.
Maroilles is a semi-soft washed rind cheese made from unpasteurised or pasteurised cow’s milk in Thiérache, north of France.
Once drained, the young square curds are salted and left to rest in a ventilated area, le haloir, for up to 10 days where they will partially dry and develop a light blue fuzz on their surface. This brief blueing stage is necessary, it determines the future taste of the product, the blue mould actually absorbs some of the acidity leaving us with a somewhat sweeter meatier product. Though crucial, this blueing must be brief as it shan't be allowed to invade the whole cheese, a good brush and wash is in order. The cheeses are moved to an aging cellar with a substantially higher humidity level averaging 90% while washing carries on for a few weeks to encourage the ferment du rouge which will turn the rind sticky and smelly with an unmistakable orange red hue. The taste is soft and creamy, with a slight sweetness and lingering milky flavour when young. When fully ripe, it is meaty, tastes somewhat of bacon, it lingers and lingers and lingers…mind the rind!
Some crystals will appear on the rind as your cheese as it ages, these crystalized minerals are left overs from the ripening of our cheese.
Don't let the smell put you off, there are some treasures to be enjoyed once past it!