Legends are spinning around l’Époisses, the royal cheese from the heart of Burgundy. One them has it that Cistercian monks invented the cheese at the beginning of the 16th or even 15th century but these are stories without real proof. Pierre Androuët, one of the lead historians of cheese, dates its origins back to the 18th century, relying on a source that mentions the cheese in 1775. It is for sure that there’s no other cheese worth of the honorary title
It’s an extremely rich milk product displaying strong odours and colours of orange and red, signalling hefty gastronomic pleasures. This is not a cheese for beginners, you’ll need some experience with strong sensations to really appreciate it. Époisses has in fact seen rough times by the end of the 20th century when Listeria scandals threatened its existence. Maybe that’s why many French cheese lovers have a special relationship with it – in the end of the day, the risk of poisoning yourself adds to real pleasure in France, a country, where oysters, raw seafood and, say, tartar (made of raw red meat and raw eggs) count among the somewhat dangerous dining favourites.
L’Époisses is not that dangerous anyway. Producers master the tricky raw milk quite perfectly and large parts of the Époisses production is made nowadays of pasteurized milk anyway. You can still find raw milk cheeses and you’ll detect the difference quite easily. But even the pasteurized pieces are good, hearty, rustic and full of character. And character – that’s the best word to characterize this soft, creamy, almost liquid cheese that is eaten best with just a piece of fresh baguette. (Concerning the battle between raw-milk-defenders and pasteurized-milk-lobbyists just let me add that industrial food producers had and have their scandals, too. To say that pasteurized milk products were entirely safe is a false assertion).
L’Époisses comes in a great variety of different sizes, you’ll find tiny 50-gram-pieces or large one-kilo-bricks, they’ll always be disk-shaped, quite flat and, see above, with an orange crust that reminds of the colour of cooked lobsters. Unlike many other cheeses, Époisses goes quite well with red wines (from Burgundy, by preference, I still prefer to have white wine with almost any kind of cheese). L’Époisses’ fabrication in the remote French village of the same name includes complicated procedures of washing (with wine and eau-de-vie sometimes), salting, peeling, moulding, it needs at least three months of refinement – affinage – in humid cellars cooled to 10°C. Learn more on the official Époisses website, if you like.
And just promise me one thing: when YOU have it on your table some day, please say a little prayer and thank God and France for this kind of food, will you? And don’t complain about prices. This is priceless stuff.