Thursday, February 19, 2009

If you can't stand the stink, stay out of the Boulette

This is the first in a series of cheese posts that have been a long time coming. I was trying to take a break from strictly food posts, but as a result, all the cheese, glorious cheese we've been eating has been neglected. And that's just sad because they're so good.

However, if there were ever a cheese that would not be endorsed as glorious by the (US) National Dairy Board, this might be it. It's the antithesis of every image presented in that commercial and of every scent and taste evoked by that commercial.

Here it is ...

It looks a little alarming. It smells more than a little alarming. But it actually tastes really good. (Ok, I admit right now that I like durian, but hear me out because this has much broader appeal than durian ... or at least somewhat broader appeal ... I think?)

Boulette d'Avesnes is a very old cheese from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region near the border with Belgium. According to the website of the city of Avesnes-sur-Helpe, whence this stinky little delicacy comes, the cheese dates back to 1760 or so. At that time, it was made from buttermilk (and was the result of thrift) but since the early part of the last century, it's been made from the fromage blanc of Maroilles (another delicious cheese for another post).

So a little background here: fromage blanc is the first stage in some cheese making in which milk + rennet = coagulation. The solids are fromage blanc. (I'm pretty sure that you can also get fromage blanc via coagulation with lactic fermentation, but I'm no expert and in any case the fromage blanc of Maroilles is made with rennet.)

When the fromage blanc de Maroilles isn't up to snuff for one reason or another, when it's accidentée, the solids get mashed up with parsley, tarragon, salt and pepper (and sometimes ground cloves), and formed into the boulette.

They're then aged for two to three months, during which time they're brushed with beer and finally, they're coated with paprika (or annatto).

So what is it like?

Well, the boulette are sold upright with a molded plastic cap covering the cheese that snaps onto that black base you see in the photos. The fromager wraps the encased cheese in paper and gives it to you to take home. When you get home and unwrap the paper, the smell you couldn't smell in the cheese store (because all the other cheeses were masking it) fills the air. And when you take off that plastic cap ...

If I told you exactly what it smelled like with the most accurate description I know, family members would be offended and shocked that I would say such a thing and all of you would wonder what in the world would possess me (and James -- he ate it too!) to put something in my mouth that smelled like this does. But along with the smell that says "This thing shouldn't be eaten", there is the smell of cheese. Plus, you bought it at the cheese shop, so it probably is cheese and not something else.

The texture is something like feta, boursin and ricotta all rolled into one. It's sort of firm and compact, but sort of spreadable (with a lot of pressure on the knife), but a little crumbly.

The flavor is really good. It tastes strong and pungent like Maroilles, but with herbs (and salt -- it is quite salty). The tarragon gives it a really pleasant anise-y sweetness, which, coupled with the paprika, sort of tricks you into tasting cinnamon.

It tastes great with Belgian beer and is also good alongside a pear.

But, let's just say that this is an outside cheese and even though I'd gladly eat it again, I probably won't buy one again.

1 comment:

Nancy said... smelly was it. Do they sell a lot of it?...or only to crazy Americans and then laugh like crazy because they found another silly buyer! It looks pretty and the texture might be ok but if it's that way! How much beer did it take to wash it down? Sorry, I shouldn't be so negative. It's great that you a braving the way for those of us who would never...ever...try it!