The Feet of God: Funky Cheeses and the People Who Love Them

July 19, 2021

by The Big Cheese

We’re a bit crazy about cheese around here. We eat it, we live it, and we dream about it. Some of us wear it on our heads, and not just at Packers games. Quality cheddar is our business, but for those of you who want to know more, there’s an entire world of cheese knowledge out there.

Caseophiles worldwide have been living and loving the cheese life for centuries, and when you know what you like, you can be passionate almost to the point of insanity. Or poetry.

The title of this post comes from one such enthusiast, namely French poet Leon Paul Fargue, who described his favorite cheese — Camembert — as smelling like “les pieds de Dieu,” or the feet of God.

We won’t claim to know what cheese the other Big Cheese’s feet smell like, but we can verify that Camembert is frequently the number-one-selling fromage in France, with Emmental often coming in second. It has a bouquet we find pretty tame on the overall cheese-odor spectrum, although some outsiders find the taste revolting. Needless to say, it’s an acquired taste.

Hard Rind, Creamy Center: A Guide to the Spreadable and Somewhat Stinky

Camembert derives its name from the village in Normandy (in the northwest of France) where it was originally produced. And it isn’t alone. More varieties of pungent cheese are kicking around western Europe than we could sample without busting a gut. If you don’t feel like leaving France just yet, you could head over to Burgundy to try some authentic Epoisses with some of the local wine, or maybe some Maroilles in Picardy.

Head further north and you’ll find Esrom in Denmark. Native to Belgium is the famously aromatic Limburger, and further south you’ll find Torta del Casar in Spain and U Pecorinu on the island of Corsica.

Americans have our own aromatic contenders, like Hooligan in Connecticut and Greensward in Vermont, but they don’t have quite the same cultural presence. These European cheeses are more a part of the fabric of day-to-day life in their countries of origin. Some people even take pride in being the folks who enjoy eating something that smells like an armpit and makes foreigners raise their eyebrows.

Cheese in Your Veins, Veins in Your Cheese: We’re Turning Blue

Look beyond, my friends, past the packaged blue cheese dip that came with your last takeout order of Buffalo wings, and past the salad dressing in the condiment aisle, to a rich cultural history of … well … culture. We’re talking about mold, which can be a scary word if you aren’t into cheese. If you are and it’s handled right, you’re in for a treat.

Blue cheese results from a controlled culturing process with the mold penicillium. These molds, particularly Penicillium roqueforti — named for one of the original blues — show up in many kinds of cheese, including some we’ve mentioned. And yes, that genus is related to the group of antibiotics with the similar-sounding name. When concentrated, they’re responsible for the veins of color you see in blue cheese.

It’s worth mentioning that these are some of the most common fungi on earth and can appear in one form or another throughout the food world. Cheese-makers have, over time, learned to tame what began as spoilage in the most delicious way — and some of the results are creamy, crumbly, and piquant blue cheeses.

Classics like Castello, Gorgonzola, St. Agur, or Stilton (which is also produced as a white cheese without penicillium) are easy entrees for blue cheese novices. Their sharper profiles mean they pair well with mild, savory flavors in foods, such as dried fruits and nuts, full-bodied red wines, and rich red meats. Anyone who’s ever had a Stilton sauce on a steak will vouch.

Why do we love these stinkers? According to Bon Appetit, the appeal lies in a phenomenon called backwards smelling, particularly pronounced in blue cheeses but not at all unique to them. Simply put, when we pop these cheeses in our mouths and chew, the gaseous, aromatic molecules they give off waft up the back of our noses. Our brains seem to like it.

Farmstead Fresh: Make Room in the Fridge

When a cheese-maker says “farmstead,” we mean specialty cheese that comes from the animals the farm or dairy owns. The good stuff. It doesn’t even have to be something with an adventurous bouquet; sometimes subtle is better. We won’t drive ourselves crazy trying to list even a fraction of the delicious specialty farmstead and artisanal cheeses out there, even just here in Wisconsin. There are too many to count.

What we will say is that there are options for every cheese-seeking palate. Odds are you found your way to us in search of some top-quality cheddar, and we’re grateful, but that’s only one end of the spectrum.

Another side of our craft appeals to the raw milk folks. Anything unpasteurized does naturally come with an increased risk for certain bacteria, but many of the cheeses we’ve mentioned up to this point have been produced with raw milk for centuries and are beloved staples in their home countries. This style of production is coming back in America, too, even with strict FDA guidelines. Why take the chance? There are those who argue the flavor of pasteurized milk cheeses just can’t measure up to the taste imparted by wild microbes.

Maybe this is all a little overwhelming. That’s okay, cheese is an enormous space. It’s possible all you’ve ever known are the bags of shredded nacho stuff at the supermarket. Or, you might have traveled the world sampling every flavor and variety we’ve mentioned here.

No matter how broad your dairy horizons and however much cheese you already have in the fridge, we know you won’t regret making room for some of ours.

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