The first time I heard someone call Comté “stinky,” my jaw dropped. Comté, a semi-hard lightly washed rind from France’s jura region, is a sultry, sweet wheel with flavors of butter, toasted walnuts, caramel, and from time to time, notes of caramel or beef. I would have sooner called a rose stinky than Comté. It wasn’t until that French friend told me that on one of the many gastronomic field trips that French children take during elementary school, she fainted in a Comté cave because the scent was so fierce, that I really thought about the term stinky.
Stinky is relative. My fainting friend — who admits the only cheese she’ll eat is fresh burrata or mozzarella and who made me keep all cheese I purchased while visiting her on the balcony where she couldn’t smell it — has a very low tolerance level for stinky cheese. Let’s classify it as zero on a scale of 1 to 10 (I still love her though; she sends me home with jars of her granmother’s quince jelly). My stinky tolerance level is 8. Another friend’s level is 13.
In honor of cheeses everywhere, I thought I’d take some time to mention some of my favorite stinkies, as in, they stink so good. Their scent comes from cheesemakers washing them in a brine of salt and water or a blend of water and alcohol that encourages growth of the sultry Brevibacterium linens bacteria. It’s a good bacteria that keeps the bad ones away.
Below are some of my favorite choices, in varying degrees of stinkiness. I rate the funkiness possibilities from 1-10. Taste at your local cheese shop if you want to rate your specific slice before taking home.
A beginner’s stinky. A triple-creme that tastes like butter with a kick. Serve young if you like it mild, let it mellow if you like it funky. I like this one with fruit and walnut crostinis. 3 to 8 (if you let it sit in your fridge for a week or more, it’s an 8, easy).
A semi-firm cheese from Auvergne, France, with a slight cheddary bite and a sharp/sweet finish. Good with sour cherry preserves. 3 to 5.
A full-bodied, yet sweet semi-firm goat’s milk cheese that occasionally has a little cow’s milk mixed in. Love it with fig jam. 2 to 5.
Set with thistle flower, this sheep’s milk wheel has a floral, slightly vegetal flavor. It gets so soft as it ages that its top can be cut off and its insides scooped straight from the cheese. Good with torn pieces of country bread. 4 to 10.
This traditional softie ranges from mild to way, way strong. Comes with aging guidelines. Seek out the Chalet Cheese version if you can — it’s the only remaining producer of this famed cheese in the U.S. Chalet Cheesemaker Myron Olson likes it with strawberry jam, and so do I. 5 to 11.
Kirstin Jackson is a professionally trained cook, wine bar manager and cheese program director, food and wine writer, consultant, and instructor, whose fridge and head is almost entirely consumed with cheese. Her cheese blog, “It’s Not You, It’s Brie,” was launched in April 2009, and has since received accolades from Blogs.com, Foodista, and Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchen. Her first book, It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese published in 2012.