Monday, 26 March 2012

Cheese of the Month - Vacherin Mont d'Or

Sometimes it can be irritating when the taste of a foodstuff fails to live up to its aroma. Coffee is often the biggest offender in this regard - the smell of fresh coffee is one of life's great pleasures, all roasty and chocolatey and lovely, and yet (in my very limited experience; I've not touched the stuff for many years thanks to a caffeine allergy) in the mouth it has a horrible habit of turning into bitter swampwater. Some cheeses, too, have a bark bigger than their bite - Epoisses is generally quite a mild-tasting cheese, creamy and mildly funky in its unpasteurised way but nothing anything like the extraordinary smell of a properly aged specimen would indicate.

It is to the benefit of humanity as a species, however, that this Vacherin Mont d'Or doesn't taste like it smells, because the odour is just atrocious. Past merely funky, it has the deep, soily, ammonia-rich stink of a rotting corpse, as offensively rank as almost anything else I've ever known in my life. It was so powerful, after just a couple of hours in the fridge it had started attacking everything I'd stored in there - through triple and quadruple-wrapped clingfilm the smell permeated leftover bacon, lettuce, orange juice and milk. I'd know from my bedroom whenever my flatmate opened the fridge because five minutes later the chemical bomb would hit, having travelled up a flight of stairs and through a closed door. It is a smell that, if encountered in nature, would suggest some kind of terminal disease, and yet in my geeky cheese-loving way I find myself fascinated by it, simultaneously repulsed and attracted.

Fortunately, oh so fortunately, the taste is something else entirely. In true stinky washed-rind soft-cheese fashion, it is creamy and salty and ever-so-slightly sweet, a gloriously well-balanced flavour and dangerously addictive. The unpasteurised milk means that a trace (though only a trace thank God) of the aforementioned soily ammonia travels through to the flesh, adding extra farmy complexity, and the texture at room temperature is just runny enough to require the use of a spoon but not so liquid that it doesn't hold some shape on a plate. Scooping great big wobbly mounds of it onto crackers and devouring them whole is an unadulterated joy.

I'm told that production of Vacherin Mont d'Or runs only until 15th March, which means that this very special cheese won't be gracing your local cheesemonger with its stench for much longer. It may also explain why the one I had was quite so pongy, as presumably earlier in the season the noxious chemicals in the flesh aren't quite so, er, lively. But actually, part of the fun - and it is great fun - of having a Vacherin in the house is that you are constantly reminded of its presence; it's sort of like taking temporary care of a neighbour's flatulent pet - it's a commitment undertaken to a living, breathing organism. If you can handle it, and if you have suitably understanding co-habitors, the rewards are potentially immense.



Kavey said...

Ha, yours must have been WELL AND TRULY RIPE to be quite that stinky! I love Vacherin, but I've never noticed the smell being QUITE that invasive!

I love love love this cheese!

I wrote a bit about the production and seasonality of it in a blog post in which I baked it whole and served with a crusty baguette. Here, if you're interested:

Did you get yours from cheese monger or supermarket?

Alex C said...

If you end up going to the Gavroche, it's well worth having a go at their triple creme Vacherin which is phenomenal.

The one you tried I usually take along to join the Christmas cheeseboard, and it's astonishing what it'll do to a silver spoon left in it overnight. Pretty gruesome - looks like a day old black eye.

I'm off to one of Mien Tay / Battersea Mess tonight with a mate though we'd divert to Battersea Mess if you fancied trying it out. 7.30 is pretty short notice...

Dan said...

Hahahah nice post on the horrors of a truly ripe cheese. Well done Chris for having the steely resolve to ignore the rotten corpse like smell and tuck in. You're a braver man than me.

I really like the seasonal aspect of this cheese, you wont see them again till Christmas now.

I've had a few Vacherin, and personally prefer them when they're not quite so ripe. I also reckon they are superlative baked and spooned onto bread with some cornichons on the side.

Dinnerathon said...

I brought home a Vacherin from Megeve last week and have to say was rather disappointed in the level of ripeness - opposite end of the spectrum! Still, great cheese though!

Ncf21 said...

According to "cheese legend" Vacherin is best eaten higher than 1000m above sea-level (ie. where it is made) as it has more taste and much less stink. I can vouch for this after bringing one back from skiing hols - as the bus drove down the mountain the smell got worse and worse, everyone on board evidently looking around to find the guilty corpse/party. We tried keeping it in the garage at home but even there it stank the house out and my dad threw it away...

Chris said...

Kavey: Was from Waitrose!

Alex C: Sorry, missed you again. As you may have noticed by now, last night I was paying over the odds for rather humdrum food at Ceviche.

Ncf21: I have sympathy for both you and your dad.

Rowena... said...

I picked one up last month at a traveling french market in the suburbs of Milan. The cheese vendor had an opened vacherin out on the counter (now that's one way to either lure 'em in or chase 'em away) and when we asked "what is that SMELL?", he promptly offered us a taste. We fell in love with it instantly, and when we told him that we really like stinky cheese, he suggested to wait a month before eating it, then when we're ready to serve it, put some minced garlic and a splash of white wine on the top and bake. What bliss! Our whole kitchen smelled like a ton of dirty gym socks!