Photo courtesy of California Milk Advisory Board

Photo: Despite draconian pasteurization laws, California makes some pretty fine stinky cheeses, too.

If the thought of cheese conjures up images of bland snack food hermetically sealed in cellophane sheets, cardboard tubes or aerosol cans, it''s time to wake up and smell the aromas.

There''s a universe of cheese out there that will either completely disgust you-or change your life. Ya baby, I''m talking about stinky cheeses, the bacterial mutations that are covered in festering mold. The kind that if you get them just ripe enough will ooze like slime and emit an aroma that will make your dirty socks smell like the latest Calvin Klein fragrance by comparison. In other words, cheese nirvana.

Like a glistening pearl in a barnacle covered oyster shell, stinky cheese offers a gastronomic bonanza to those who can get past its appearance-and of course, its nearly toxic fumes. The reward for persevering is a decidedly unstinky taste sensation that saturates every last taste bud with a robust, creamy, yet tangy fusion of flavors.

I was inducted into the world of stinky fromage during a wine trip to Bordeaux. In no time, I found myself neglecting the elaborate multi-course meals in order to save room for the cheese service that inevitably follows every grandiose French dinner.

Years later, my true stinky cheese epiphany happened at Mraz + Sohn, a restaurant in Vienna, Austria. After a sumptuous meal, I bolted for the cheese cart to survey the odiferous delicacies. Half jokingly, I asked the waitress where the really, really stinky cheeses were. Without missing a beat, she pulled out a drawer to reveal the holy grail of mold-covered, runny cheeses.

The motley assemblage looked as threatening as it did appealing. The uninitiated might have turned and run, but I asked for a taste of each, along with a glass of Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz (her recommendation). The gloriously pungent French cheeses, alongside a wine that was exploding with ripe, supple fruit created a spine-tingling culinary orgasm. It was the closest I have ever come to a perfect marriage of food and wine.

In my never-ending quest to help you get a lot out of life, regardless of what your lot in life is, I set out to learn why the artisan cheeses they eat in Europe are so different from what we have all grown up to accept as cheese in America. I discovered that the nose-numbing smell and moldy rind that are the hallmarks of stinky cheese are the result of polycultures and bacterias that form on the outer skin of the cheese as it ripens. As it is aged, the cheese skin absorbs the earthiness of the damp cellar in which it germinates, and the mold that develops on the rind, called bacillus linens, generates an ammonia-like smell. Some of the finished cheeses are also "washed" in locally-produced spirits, such as marc, a rough Burgundian brandy, which ferments the natural fats and adds another layer of complexity to the already heady aromas.

There is another element that contributes to the difference between European and American cheeses, although there are dissenting opinions as to its importance. In America most cheeses are required by law to be pasteurized, a process that heats the milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit and kills the potentially dangerous bacterias (and unfortunately some of the flavor). In France where the cheese is not required to be pasteurized, the milk is heated to a lower temperature, which preserves the integrity of the raw ingredients.

Of course the quality of the milk itself, heavily determined by what the cows graze upon, is also a key factor. Then there is the issue of making cheese to suit the taste of the consumer. European cheeses are crafted to meet European tastes which tend to be bigger, bolder and less convenience-driven. Most of the French cheeses imported to America, notably the familiar cheese tray staples such as Brie and Camembert, conform to American regulations and tastes. This double fault produces much milder cheeses. They may be French, but they are not Frrrench.

There is no question that stinky cheese is an acquired taste. But if you hold your nose and take the leap, you may never wrestle with a cellophane wrapper again.

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