Usually when something's described as "the stinkiest," people sprint in the other direction, pinching their nostrils. The one exception to the rule? Cheese. For many, the stinkiest cheese is the best kind of cheese, even—and especially—if the initial sniff leads to a scrunched nose and a gasp. Why is this? Why does the stinky version of everything else repel us, while the stinkiest cheeses get our mouths watering? There's something about the pungency and sharpness of the world's stinkiest cheeses that encourages curiosity and adoration, instead of immediate rejection. Fortunately for us, scientists have cracked open this mystery, and it all comes down to something called backwards smelling.
In a recap of Food—Delicious Science, a PBS documentary, Bon Appetit highlighted why people go nuts for stinky cheese. The host, James Wong explained, that when you eat pungent cheeses, "The aroma compounds are released in your mouth and they waft up the back of your nose. They're detected by the same smell detectors, but weirdly your brain perceives them as very different than if you lean forward and sniff them up the front of your nose." Hence, "backwards smelling." Basically, both your sense of smell and sense of taste combine forces, and also combine the knock-you-over odor with what you know to be a creamy, delicious flavor.
So, what kind of cheese should you try if you can't help but love the smelly ones? If you've read anything about stinky cheese, you may know that a particular French cheese from Burgundy, Epoisse de Bourgogne, usually gets top marks for being the smelliest cheese in the world. Aged for six weeks in brine and brandy, it's so pungent that it's banned on French public transport. Limburger, a cheese from Germany, is known to have a smell similar to feet. And Stinking Bishop, made outside London, is washed in fermented pear juice. In Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, its smell brought Wallace back from the dead.
However, I reached out to a couple New York-area cheesemongers to get their takes on what other cheeses they think could qualify as the smelliest cheese in the world. Murray's Cheese threw Torta Del Casar, a raw Spanish sheep's milk cheese, into the ring. It's described as smelling of "freshly baked bread, honey, and a distinct funkiness," and tasting of "cultured butter, roasted artichokes, and briny green olives."
Bedford Cheese Shop had two possible contenders. Brescianella Stagionata, a cousin of Taleggio, from Lombardy, Italy, and Serpa, a Portuguese sheep's milk cheese. Brescianella Stagionata "smells of damp hay and old milk... The stink will cling to your fingertips for days." However, the taste itself is pretty mild, tasting of "sour cherry, sea water, and toasted peanuts." Serpa, on the other hand, smells "like wet wool and preserved lemon." While the smell won't permeate a room like Epoisse de Bourgogne or the aforementioned Brescianella Stagionata, it brings "an intense and unusual vegetal funk to any cheese plate," which comes from using rennet from the wild cardoon plant, rather than animal rennet.
So there you have it: six cheeses to enjoy backwards smelling. And um, if you put them all on a cheese plate, I'd love a warning. And an invitation.