The Odiferous Nature of Cheese

Celebrating Valentine’s Day this year with an evening of cheese, salami and wine, helped me recall a post I had written a few years back about the odors of cheese. Because it was on my old blog that has disappeared into some unknown space, I thought I would repost it.



Cheese and Wine Spread

As many of you know, I worked in the cheese room at Palate Food + Wine for a little while. I read up on cheeses. I put together a booklet of the cheeses we had on hand. I tasted cheeses constantly. And I smelled a lot of cheeses.

As I read about cheeses, particularly the ones that Palate carried, I was surprised to see some of the descriptions used for the odor of cheese. Some cheeses have an odor so strong that when I store them in my refrigerator, my fridge quickly smells like the cheese. As soon as I open the door, I am hit with the odor. Currently in my fridge is a wheel of VacherinMont d’Or cheese. I just hope that my roommate does not mind the powerful odor of the cheese.

Some cheeses should have a strong barnyardy odor, but a cheese should never smell like death, decay, dung or straight ammonia. For instance,  Steven Jenkins in The Cheese Primer describes the French cheese Munster this way: “Munster has a very pronounced, powerful aroma, and I have never figured out how it is that a food that smells like rotting fruits and vegetables and barnyard animals can evoke hunger pangs in me” (83). Epoisses is another cheese with a very pungent odor, which is putting it nice.

The odors of food are important because when it comes to eating the nose does most of the work. The human mouth can only decipher five basic flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. The nose, however, can sort through close to 10,000 different odors. Therefore, despite my mouth’s limitation in detecting the flavor, my nose compensates as it is connected to the mouth through the retronasal passage.

Unfortunately as an American, I am at a disadvantage when it comes to appreciating odors. The American culture literally shuns anything that smells strong, pungent, or funky. Think about how much money is spent each year to make everything smell pleasant. Granted some odors should be masked…I love my deodorant, and I am pretty positive that almost everyone else appreciates that I wear deodorant. I also love lighting fragrant candles to make my room smell nice. But this desire to cover up odors that might be a little unpleasant means that when it comes to tasting cheeses, I have to get over my preconceived idea that a bad smell equals bad taste.

You might be thinking, “Why would I ever want to put something in my mouth that has an odor that strong and that off-putting? I will just stick to food that smells good, like strawberries.” You are entitled to your opinion, but think of all that you will be missing in life. Epoisses is one of the best cheeses in the world. In fact, the great food writer, Brillat-Savarin called it the king of the cheeses. And once you get past the stench of the cheese, what awaits you is, in the words of Max McCalman, “a lovely chorus of refined flavors, complex yet well rounded” (The Cheese Plate, 102). Later, he writes, “It’s amazing how it can smell so funky and yet taste so balanced” (185).

As I thought about the odiferous nature of cheese, I began seeing the connections between cheese and my Christian life. I have come to believe deeply that my life should always smell and look good. I do not like it when things smell bad or get messy. I wish my Christian life was like a perfectly ripened strawberry—lush, perfectly ripened, that smell that immediately draws my mind to the beauty of spring and summer, and the juice that drips down my chin—that’s the Christian life I like. As I observe American Christianity, it seems that I am not alone. This is what we all want and this is what we present to others, and I think we have gotten pretty good at it, unfortunately.

But as I have studied spiritual formation, I have begun to learn that this is rarely the case, as we live in a fallen, sinful world. Sure there are moments when the Christian life might come close to resembling the strawberry. However, messiness and foul odors are part of the process that God uses in his infinite wisdom to mold me and shape me. Just like with cheese, however, there is a fine line. I am not talking about sin, which to use the analogy with cheese, smells of death, decay and dung. I am talking about situations, trials, thorns in the flesh, that the Lord introduces; those events, peoples, situations, whatever they may be, that smell “bad” to me, just like some cheese might smell “bad.” However, if I can get past my preconceived ideas and deep beliefs of what smells good and bad, then I might discover that what awaits me is similar to Epoisses: “a lovely chorus of refined flavors, complex yet well rounded.”

Unlike with cheese, where the payoff comes as soon as the cheese enters my mouth, I may never fully know that chorus of refined flavors, but I will continue to learn to trust.


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