As I walked into my apartment yesterday, I was swiftly and forcefully reminded that I’d left some cheese out on the counter. Yep, the whole apartment was ripe — not just the cheese. And when I say ripe, I mean ripe. I couldn’t help but laugh at my oversight.
It reminded me of a similar experience I had when I was first getting started in the cheese business. At the time, I was living in a small, illegal apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco. It had very low ceilings (like 6 feet 4 inches tall; I’m 6’2”), and I’m positive it used to be a garage. In any case, a few months after I moved in my oldest pal Brad came to San Francisco for a visit. He agreed to meet me at the Dovre Club — a mere twelve steps from my front door — for some barley pops. After a dozen or so we headed back to my place, where I asked Brad to grab us a couple of beers while I carried his suitcase in. He opened the refrigerator door and let out a shriek; from the sound of it, you’d think he’d found a severed head in there. Naturally, I’d forgotten that I was housing a giant collection of fragrant cheeses at the time.
I had a super-ripe slab of Tallegio, the washed-rind cow’s milk cheese from Italy’s Lombardi region. Mild and not so smelly when young, as it ages it becomes a bit forceful on the nose even though it remains easy to eat. My slab was perfectly soft and runny: ideal by my standards, if not by Brad’s.
Next there was a poorly wrapped wheel of French Camembert that was admittedly a day or two past its prime. Surface-ripened cheeses like camembert and brie are usually served a bit underripe, but that certainly wasn’t the case that night at my house.
I also had a half-eaten Azeitao, the small-format DOC Portuguese sheep’s milk cheese. I’ve been a fan of cheeses from Portugal for a long time because they’re usually hand-crafted in small batches and produced in true Old World style. This one had a washed rind and was renetted with wild thistle from a cardoon plant, thus was completely vegetarian. It’s a beautiful cheese…with a not-so-beautiful stench when it’s been sitting around for a few days.
The final offender was a chunk of drippy Roquefort Carles, the intensely flavorful French sheep’s milk blue cheese that has long been a favorite of mine. A rindless cheese that’s aged in limestone caves, it tends to weep whey as it ages (the source of its powerful aroma). I like to eat it when the blue mold is starting to turn slightly gray, which of course is when it’s at its apex of pungency.
I had to admit the smell in my tiny apartment was just short of unbearable and I begrudgingly accepted the title of “The Stinky Cheese Man.” Then, in an effort to get rid of the stench, I managed to convince Brad to help me eat all the offenders. We opened up a couple of Coors tallboys, grabbed some crackers and got down to business. While we didn’t come close to eating everything, the delicious taste of each individual cheese more than made up for their collectively overwhelming smell. (At least for me it did. As for Brad… the jury’s still out.)