Stinky, Glorious Cheese

(This piece was originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

In 1993, I returned from a brief stint as a nanny in France with a suitcase full of stinky cheese. Nineteen-year-old girls should bring home kitschy black berets or sleek leather handbags, maybe even a snow globe with the Eiffel Tower inside, but I brought cheese.

The suitcase also contained a pack of Galois and a bottle of wine, since at the time I thought cigarettes and booze would be clear evidence of my having acquired a certain cultural sophistication while living abroad. The cheese, however, seemed silly and I remember being rather embarrassed about it at the time. Over the years, I’ve searched in vain for a wedge of brie that might transport me back to my stay in France, yet the domestic brie in your average American grocery aisle has never really compared.

So imagine my excitement last week when, in the chaos of the Fred Meyer West renovation, I found three large cases full of imported cheese in the new deli — from far-flung locations like Italy, Iberia and, best of all, France. I turned over wheel after wheel of soft and hard cheeses and there was not one English word to be found. My heart was literally racing.

As long as human beings have been herding animals, we’ve been making and eating cheese. The fourth stomach of a ruminating (grass eating) animal contains something called rennet, an enzyme that causes milk products to curdle and separates the curds from the whey. Then, specific starter bacteria are added to create the flavor peculiar to each cheese, followed by a number of techniques such as stretching or washing to create the texture.

For instance, in a mozzarella the curd is stretched and pulled while warm in order to convince the protein (the casein) to form a lattice structure, which is why the cheese on your pizza stretches in that gooey delicious way.

Those are just the rudimentary basics. I know little compared to today’s cheesemonger (a job that actually requires a formal education), who can explain much better the difference between the nearly 500 types of cheese recognized by the International Dairy Federation.

So what was I to do with this sudden influx of choice? How could I get my kids to eat stinky imported cheese? I resorted to a technique taught to me by my mother: hors d’oeuvres night. To have one of your own you can either break out the pigs in blanket, sliced vegetables, and pepperoni dip (my mother once went on a pepperoni dip bender, but that’s another story) or go stinky cheese style like I did.

Stinky cheese hors d’oeuvres night

2 kinds of bread, sliced into approximately 1 inch by 1 inch squares and lightly toasted

Unsalted crackers (the cheese will usually provide enough salt)

3-4 kinds of cheese (try a mixture of hard and soft for variety)

Fig jam or honey

Grapes or apples

Sliced vegetables (I used marinated tomatoes, olives, sautéed onions and cherry peppers)

Chopped, fresh herbs (I used thyme and basil)

Sliced deli meat (Soppressata for me)

Arrange everything on a big cutting board and then let everyone stack their own. It’s fun.

The results: My kids didn’t like what they called the “back taste” of the brie, but they really loved the young goat’s milk brie (which had a less silky texture than aged brie) as well as the French mimolette, which looks a little like a sliced melon and tastes like a slightly sweet, buttery cheddar.

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