Époisses, home of the smelliest cheese on earth*

A couple of decades ago, this headline ran in a British newspaper, “France in panic over killer soft cheese“. The people of France weren’t alone in their panic, the article was referring to one of my favourite cheeses, Époisses de Bourgogne. Two people had died from eating cheeses made illegally by an unlicensed company that contained harmful levels of the bacteria, listeria. Sales of several types of French soft cheese were badly affected and companies making Époisses were facing financial ruin.

This would have been a disaster for a cheese tradition that had almost been lost once before. The art of making Époisses cheese had largely been forgotten by the end of the Second World War. It was only revived by two farmers, Robert and Simone Berthaut, in the 1950s. Their dedication has slowly been built it into an international brand. The Fromagerie Berthaut can still be found in the village of Époisses, from where it sells its award winning products.

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

It was a group of monks – who clearly had time on their hands – from the Abbaye de Citeaux who invented Époisses early in the 16th century. Made from raw cow’s milk, it is washed in salty water and then put in a humid cellar for around a month. Afterwards, the rind is washed in Marc de Bourgogne, a brandy that imparts a strong odour of sour milk, two or three times a week for several weeks.

The result is a powerful flavour, salty and creamy with an extremely pungent smell. If that sounds like the sort of thing you’d cross the street to avoid, all I’ll say is that it tastes a lot better than it smells. The Emperor Napoleon was a fan, and he was a child of the Enlightenment. Not everyone has the same opinion, however. In 2004, it was reported that Époisses had been banned from public transport in France because of its overwhelming stench.

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

After driving around with several ‘wheels’ of Époisses de Bourgogne from Fromagerie Berthaut in the back of the car for a few days, I can confirm that it has a smell that lingers. Banning it from public transport seems like a sensible precaution. We visited the Fromagerie Berthaut shortly after arriving in the village of Époisses. I got a little carried away with the amount of cheese I bought, but it felt like the end of a lifetime of cheesy pilgrimage.

We had a walk around the village – an activity that takes about ten minutes to complete – and discovered there is a group dedicated to the protection of this cheese: Syndicat De Défense De L’Epoisses. Here I learned that some 1,300 tonnes of Époisses is made every year using milk from forty-five approved farms. Around 30 percent of the cheese is exported, a certain amount of which ends up in the cheese shop at the end of my street in The Hague.

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Having run out of cheese-related distractions, we wandered over to the second most interesting thing to be found in Époisses: the Château du Époisses. Owned by the same family since 1661, there has been a castle here since the 6th century. The outer walls and moat enclose a village within the village, with a church and several houses. It’s a beautiful building and picturesque setting, but sadly only the grounds were open the day we were there.

The building that you can see from the other side of the moat, is literally only half the building that was once there. During the French Revolution, the owners were first arrested, only to discover upon their return that most of the chateau’s rooms had been ransacked. In 1793, the revolutionary Committee for Public Safety ordered the chateau to be demolished, eventually deciding only half needed destroying. It’s that half, spared revolutionary fervour, that remains today.

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* The debate on what is the smelliest cheese on earth is a lively one, and has not yet been successfully concluded. Époisses is, however, very stinky.

9 thoughts on “Époisses, home of the smelliest cheese on earth*

    • Thank you. I had forgotten about those three men, but have been reliving it this evening, mainly by laughing uncontrollably…and I did once live in Liverpool. I think this applies to our apartment: “Very well, then,” said my friend’s wife, rising, “all I have to say is, that I shall take the children and go to an hotel until those cheeses are eaten. I decline to live any longer in the same house with them.”

  1. I learned something. never tried Epoisses before. I will on my next trip. I do like strong cheeses: Münster, Chaumes. The former I once left in the trunk of the car after shopping, an entire day and night. In the summer. The car had to be practically disinfected inside and out… 🙂

      • Absolutely! I loved that book when I read it around 10-11? In French, in Africa? No, a bit later, in Holland. Read it again a few years ago. English “esprit” at its best. I also remember the visit to the Doctor. 🙂

      • Just read the chapter. Thank you ever so much “old boy”. Like I said: British with at its best. Forgot whether I asked: have you read Gerald Durrell? (Larry’s little brother?)

        • I once spent a couple of weeks tracing his steps around Corfu, not voluntarily I might add. My travelling companion was obsessed about unearthing the scenes from the books. I’d have been happy sipping retsina on the beach.

        • Understandably so. The places are not so important as the writing. And that first book was fun, but the subsequent books about his travels to fill up his jersey zoo were also hilarious. “The Bafut beagles” is a good example. I probably have most of his books actually. Résiné notwithstanding. (I wonder if we have any in the bar?)

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