Have you ever heard a cheesemonger rave about Epoisses or Stinking Bishop and wondered what washed-rind cheese is and why it can make your refrigerator smell… unique? If you’re nodding along, this article has the answers for you. We’re affineurs of washed rind cheeses and we have information passed down to us about this cheese type that we’d like to share with you. Grab some crackers, maybe a glass of wine, and tuck in.
What Does Washed Rind Cheese Mean?
The key difference that makes a washed rind cheese is exactly what it says in the name - the rind is washed during the maturation process after the cheese has moulded. The outside of the cheese is moistened with a damp cloth or brush, and this can be done anywhere from just once or twice to sometimes several times a day. The washing solution can be brine (saltwater) or various alcohols such as beer or brandy.
This washing process transforms the cheese by cultivating bacteria that are more tolerant of humid, ammoniated, and salty conditions, such as brevibacterium linens, which typically produce orange and golden to ruby-red colour and sometimes a pungent smell due to sulphur compounds produced as it grows. Don't worry; the aroma is less pronounced and softer once in your mouth.
Most cheese styles have their defining characteristics formed during production, while washed-rind cheeses acquire their traits post-production. The edible rind is a significant contributor to the flavour of washed-rind cheese and often dominates it. When it comes to defining a washed-rind cheese, there are no other strict rules; some are firm while others are oozing. This leads to a great variety of styles, textures, and flavours of washed-rind cheese, ranging from the firm, nutty Gruyère to the strong, smelly Livarot. However, when most people refer to washed-rind cheeses, they usually think of the softer, more pungent varieties.
Where Did Washed Rind Cheeses Originate?
The practice of washing the rind of cheese originated in two areas: the lowlands, which produced softer cheeses primarily in French monasteries (thus, they are often known as Monastery or Trappist cheeses), and the mountains, which produced harder cheeses.
Monks made cheese and stored it in their humid, closed cellars, which were already ripe with ideal ammoniated conditions for the bacteria. As the cheese dried out and began to crack and develop unfavourable rinds, the monks would wash the cheese in whatever they had to hand. The washed-rind cheese was born, helping to create a rich, savoury flavour that is animalistic, yeasty, and meaty. One of the reasons monks loved making this style of cheese is that this was the closest they could get to eating meat (as they practised abstinence from meat).
Up in the mountains, the humid, damp environments caused unfavourable moulds to grow. This led to washing the cheese with brine, restricting the growth of grey and brown moulds and adding salt to the cheese.
Producers will often add bought-in bacteria and sometimes even a little colour (annatto) into the wash to help the rind form its colour and characteristics. A soft-washed rind cheese should be plump, and the rind should be bright and moist, almost tacky, but not too sticky or slick. Avoid rinds that are too old, browning, dry, or cracked.
4 Essential Washed Rind Cheeses
In Britain, many delicious and unique washed rind cheeses are enjoyed by cheese lovers. Some popular examples include:
Yarlington - One of the newcomers to the British artisan cheese scene, Yarlington is skilfully washed in the finest British cider. As the cheese ages, the cider wash comes to the fore, supplying notes of green apple skins and a little Oakwood smokiness.
Ogleshield - Ogleshield is made by Jamie Montgomery in Somerset using the rich milk from Jamie’s own herd of Jersey cows. Ogleshield is a raclette-style cheese which has a supple texture and melts beautifully. The cheese is washed with a special brine every three days to develop a slightly pungent orangey-pink rind, which gives the cheese its deeply savoury, brothy & slightly sweet flavour.
Ashcombe - Inspired by the world-famous Morbier, a classic French cheese from the Franche-Comté, Ashcombe features a striking line of wood ash running through the centre of the cheese. The cheese is washed in brine daily for five weeks to develop a bright terracotta rind.
In recent years, the popularity of artisanal and speciality cheeses has led to a resurgence in the production of washed rind cheeses in Britain. Many small-scale cheese producers are now making these cheeses using traditional methods and high-quality ingredients. The result is a wide variety of delicious and unique washed rind cheeses that are enjoyed by cheese enthusiasts everywhere.
At Rennet & Rind, we play a small part in that with our finely crafted artisan cheeses. We’re an award-winning cheesemonger and affineur, and our Washed Rind Cheese collection is a treasure trove of many unique and quality cheese varieties. If you’d like to try a selection of some of our finest cheeses in one package, try our ever-popular mystery cheese box to have a curated selection of five of our highlights. It’s the best way to taste the pleasures of Rennet & Rind’s lauded artisan cheeses.