'the feet of angels'
‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ we all crave comfort food. It begs for simple, satisfying warmth beyond the sugary, carb-laden excess of holidays, and the biggest, boldest of the comfort cheeses are the washed rinds.
Washed for days in brine and/or beers and ale, these bathing beauties develop a distinctive orange rind of Brevibacterium Linen (B. Linens), along with an even more distinctive, funky nose. Its this nose that's ‘the feet of angels’ to some and disgusting enough to others to get these cheeses banished from restaurant cheese boards.
Taleggio, Pont L’Eveque, Gruyere, Ardrahan, are milder versions of the stinky family. French Munster, Limburger, and Epoisse are the traditional heavy weights. In the last 15 years American counterparts like Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, Haystack Mountain Red Cloud, Upland Rush Creek Reserve have stepped onto the stage. Capriole’s Mont St. Francis was one of the first in 1994 and is still very different in texture and flavor than the more unctuous members of the family. More semi-soft and satiny than soft, less sweet but rich and meaty, it has depth and umami, that ‘something else’ present in soy or roasted meats--hearty, beefy flavors that make this family of cheeses a most satisfying meat substitute.
Washed rinds find their origin in the European monasteries and cloisters of the Middle Ages. Most religious houses had dairies that produced milk and butter, as well as cheeses of several varieties, but washed rinds in particular provided hearty nourishment for the monks and nuns when there were over 200 cold, meatless days on the Catholic calendar. It seemed logical for our version to get its inspiration from the Franciscan Monastery near our farm. This is where I fished the lake and hiked in the summers with my Dad, held my nose and shared his Limburger and onion sandwiches on rye.
The Mont is among the meatiest of washed rinds, not the runniest or stinkiest, but one with layers of brothy flavor. Weeks of brine washing are followed by washes with Imperial Stout. Lagunitas Imperial aged in Willet barrels, 3 Floyds Dark Lord, and Louisville’s Monik Dark Materials, are among our favorites and their wash adds a rich, smoky dimension. Obviously, Russian Imperial Stouts are a logical pairing, and while they might overwhelm milder washed rinds, they only enhance the Mont.
For bone chilling days of winter the big flavors of washed rinds can go savory as a meal or sweet for the finish. Whatever you choose, washed rind cheeses must come to room temperature to be appreciated. Of course, all cheeses should be served at room temp but these in particular lose all their luster when cold.
Savory: For milder washed rinds Belgian ales are a great match, and these cheeses love big, smooth red wines, without sharp or tanic edges like Cote du Rhone and Pinot Noir. Cured meats and crusty breads with pickled cornichons are a perfect match.
Sweet: I admit is my weakness for these cheeses. Mont is not a ‘sweet curd’ washed rind and it begs for a sweet accompaniment. My perfect pairing is with sorghum—for its gamey, smoky notes—or a dark honey, or bacon marmalade. And yes, an Imperial Stout, or a sweet sipping bourbon or rye. If it’s really cold and extreme remedies are required—Calvados. We have a bottle that sits in the middle of the kitchen island during the coldest months. The sweet, smoky flavors of the sorghum and the caramel and vanilla notes of bourbon or apple brandy are really lovely.
Cornbread toasts make it a winter meal and can go either sweet or savory. These can be made with any leftover cornbread, which I always love the day after slathered with sorghum for breakfast. This is my favorite recipe.
MOTHER'S SKILLET CORNBREAD
1-1/2 cups stone ground, white cornmeal
3 level tsp. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 scant tsp. baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
3 Tbsp. bacon drippings
Preheat oven to 400° Sift dry ingredients into a bowl and mix. Add eggs to buttermilk. Beat well and mix with dry ingredients. Heat bacon drippings in a skillet till very hot. Add 2 T. bacon grease to cornbread mixture and leave remaining Tbsp. in skillet. Pour cornbread mixture into skillet. It will sizzle around the edges. Bake for 20-25 minutes until done.
For cornbread toasts: It’s best to make & enjoy the cornbread the day before toasting. Cut remaining cornbread in wedges, split the wedges through the middle, and toast in toaster oven.