Epoisses: The wonder of Fromage – unveiling one French cheese at a time
If you ask culinary journalist Emmanuel Rubin, Epoisses is one of the “great classics” of French cheese – and unfortunately, for him, it’s an endangered species, “at least as it was conceived in its entirety.” “There’s no more raw milk,” he asserts.
Indeed, Epoisses offers a bit of a paradox: odiferous and powerful in its original raw milk form, much Epoisses on the market today is made with pasteurized milk, ostensibly making it more palatable and yet distancing those who seek the subtlety and complexity its more powerful raw milk iterations offer.
While for Rubin, Epoisses may not have achieved the renown of Camembert, which he dubs a “national symbol,” it is indeed “a more regional symbol that has nevertheless become a fairly popular French cheese,” he says. “But it’s above all a cheese with a strong character.”
A Washed-Rind Wonder
With an exterior ranging from terra cotta to bright orange and a gooey, melting interior, Epoisses is a Burgundian staple par excellence. In terms of cheese taxonomy, Epoisses’ color and odor bely its membership in the washed-rind family. Such cheeses are rubbed or washed in a brine solution to promote the development of a layer of bacteria known as brevibacterium linens, which lend an umami-rich savoriness to these once-monastic cheeses – and give them their smelly aroma.
Indeed, Whole Foods cheesemonger Michelle Vieira tells VinePair, brevibacterium linens is “the same bacteria found in the sweaty, smelly zones on the body, which is why washed rinds often smell like dirty socks.”
This technique of cheesemaking seems to date back to 7th century Alsace, when, according to the Oxford Companion to Cheese, local monks invented stinky Munster. Since then, France has become home to no shortage of such smelly specialties, from Maroilles to Langres to, of course, Epoisses. But Epoisses stands out from many other members of the category, most of which are washed in a brine solution that helps promote the growth of the bacteria.
Epoisses gets a second washing in Marc de Bourgogne, the local grappa of the prestigious winemaking region, which, according to Mathilde Lincet, head of marketing for Fromagerie Gaugry, lends color and fruitiness to the cheese.
How much washing is enough?
While the AOP for Epoisses requires each cheese to be washed in alcohol a minimum of four times, the upper limit is set by each individual cheesemaker. According to Lincet, the more alcohol is added to the brine – or the more times it is rubbed – the deeper the color and flavor of the Epoisses will be.
“Those in the business often say that the more you wash an Epoisses in Marc de Bourgogne, the better it will be,” Mathilde Lincet says, noting nevertheless that at a certain point, it lends a bitterness to the cheese. “There’s a balance to find,” she says.
But washing is not the only thing conveying such a distinct personality to Epoisses. Indeed, much like fellow Burgundian Chaource or Ile-de-France’s Brie de Melun, Epoisses is made using a lactic fermentation – an ancestral, monastic technique that imparts, even more savoriness, fruitiness, and funk than the more recently developed rennet fermentation preferred, for example, for Brie de Meaux. The result? A holy stinker of a cheese.
Raw Milk No More?
It is in part due to its odiferous nature that more and more pasteurized Epoisses has appeared on the market in recent years. Of the four AOP producers of Epoisses today, only two are still making it with raw milk: Gaugry, which buys its milk in, making it a producteur laitier, and producteur fermier Fromagerie Des Marronniers, a far smaller fromagerie that also produces its own milk.
The dearth of raw milk producers, according to Rubin, is down to the cheese’s powerful aroma. “Classic” raw milk Epoisses, pervasive in the 70s and 80s, was deemed “too strong” for many, according to the journalist.
“There were loads of French people who couldn’t eat it,” Emmanuel Rubin says. “They thought that from an aromatic point of view, it stunk.” This, he says, is the “paradox” of Epoisses. “It’s funny,” he says. “It may have a strong smell, but from a taste perspective, it’s much more delicate.”
Mathilde Lincet agrees: “I think there’s a widespread confusion between strong smell and strong flavor.”
Despite trends to the contrary, Lincet, the sixth generation of her family to produce the cheese, is part of a long line of raw milk cheese defenders, including her father. “It’s important, for him, to defend the true quality of the milk,” she says, which, she notes, “is much more complex” in its raw form. Rubin agrees, noting that pasteurized Epoisses “is nothing like the original thing.”
Epoisses Strikes Back
Pasteurized Epoisses may have seemed like the ideal move to make Epoisses more palatable, but in reality, according to Rubin, many former Epoisses lovers have “abandoned” the modern cheese, which pales in comparison to its ancestors. Rubin himself refuses to buy it except at a few small cheese shops where, he says, “it has its original smell” and, above all, its original texture. “It’s a runny cheese,” he asserts. “Today, Epoisses doesn’t run anymore.”
But true Epoisses is indeed making a comeback, according to Lincet. “It’s achieving, more and more, a certain notoriety,” she says. “When they discover it, people realize it’s not as strong as all that, despite its reputation.”
A good Epoisses, she contends, has “character, yes, but also fruity notes, hazelnut notes. It’s really quite nice, at the end of the day.” It’s also a cheese whose edge is tempered, somewhat, by cooking. It’s delicious in pasta or used as a sauce for another local specialty, escargots.
Paired with local Burgundian red wine, Lincet says, “it’s really quite extraordinary.”
Are you familiar with Epoisses? Do you love it or hate it? Please share your views in the comments section below.
“Born and raised in New York, I fell in love with France young and have been based in Paris for over 15 years. I am a professional freelance writer, tour guide, and cheese connoisseuse, as well as the host of Navigating the French and co-host of The Terroir Podcast. Follow me on Instagram and sign up for my newsletter for my favorite bites and more from Paris.”
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