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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.