Oct 14, 2014

A Map, a Town, a Cheese: Epoisses


I used to look at a map of France and see a bunch of names of places I'd either heard of or, more often, not. Now, over 300 days into my Year in Fromage, what I see when I look at a map is a whole lot of cheese names. For example, here in Burgundy, you see the name of the charming hilltop village Dôme de Vézelay; I see a big ball of toad-skin cheese.

You see the medieval town of Chablis (or maybe you see a bottle of wine); I see a stinky cheese:


There are many place names outside of Burgundy, too, that lend their name to their local cheese, like Provins:


But of all the French cheese, it may just be Epoisses that has the strongest place-cheese association. For me, it's as if somebody named a town "Pizza" or "Meatloaf", although I fully realize that the name of the town came first.

We are staying for a week of vacation in a friend's house in Burgundy just a few towns away, so of course I insist to the girls that we visit Epoisses -- the town, not the cheese -- with Epoisses -- the cheese, not the town. The 15th century castle, or what's left of it anyway, is in such great shape that it is still privately inhabited. But like so many private castles, it's also open for tours. It takes a lot of money to keep a castle going in the 21st century, now that there's a real paucity of serfs.


There used to be more to the castle, but a couple sides were destroyed in the Revolution. It was more of a symbolic gesture, really, since the townspeople actually liked their local nobility enough to send in a written petition to have them spared the guillotine.

It's a très charmant castle, and even the Queen of England herself has visited. No photos allowed inside the castle, and since it's a private home, with a reasonable entrance fee, and an engaging guide, for once I actually respect that rule.

But I am allowed photos in the non-residential buildings, including a beautiful dovecote and private chapel.


THE CHEESE: Epoisses

Epoisses is a classic cheese, one of the famous ones. It's an orange cheese made in the town of Epoisses. I can be from raw or pasteurized cows' milk. The original, the "real" thing, is made from raw milk. And while that still exists, it's very difficult to find. When you do, it's not for the faint of heart.


What you'll normally see -- pretty much everywhere in the country and even the world, at this point -- is Epoisses made by Berthault, which is headquartered in the center of Epoisses.

They have to use pasteurized milk since it's a large enterprise, exporting worldwide. But still, the pasteurization feels surprising given both what a classic cheese it is and also how pungent it remains.

Epoisses has a distinguished history. A community of monks settled in Epoisses in the early 1500s, and it's believed that by the time they moved out of the village around 200 years later, they had both created and passed on the recipe for Epoisses. Later, it graced the tables of the Count of Guitaut, a nobleman in Louis XIV's entourage. Napoleon Bonaparte was also said to enjoy Epoisses. By 1900, there were around 300 farms making Epoisses cheese in the area. It began to decline during the period of the two world wars, when there simply were not enough workers left here to bother with a time-consuming cheese-making process, and even after the war, many people had lost the inclination. In 1956, a couple of farmers decided to revive their local cheese, and by 1991, it even received an AOC.

Its prime season is June through August, when it's made from the first batch of milk after the regional cows -- three breeds: Brune from Châtillonnais, French Simmental in Langres and near Auxois, and Montbéliarde near Auxois and Dijon -- start grazing in the pasture. The other prime season, conversely, is in November, December, when the milk from the cows is fragranced by autumn vegetation While it doesn't have to be made in Epoisses itself, the permitted region is centered around this small, medieval town.

When ripe and at its peak, Epoisses is so runny that it needs to be served with a spoon. This particular nubbin of Epoisses may have been made in its prime, but its clearly past its prime in terms of consumption, since instead of being runny, it's dried out and hardened.

But even hardened, old Epoisses can be made oozy and perfect. In a local Burgundy restaurant, we have Gougère stuffed with melted Epoisses: rich, but heavenly.

Washed in a Marc de Bourgogne (alcohol made from the grape skins and remains from the winemaking process), the cheese is a stinky, powerfly, orange rind cheese. And while I'm not always the biggest fan of the orange cheeses, Epoisses (and its cousins Affidelice, Langres, and Chambertin) is something special: sweet, creamy, tangy, stinky, and complex.


Once, when I was around 10 years old, I cut a stalk of celery from our backyard garden and brought it inside to spread cream cheese and raisins and have "ants on a log". I remember thinking, "Boy, it doesn't get any fresher than that!" Then suddenly, I realized it does get fresher. So I brought some cream cheese and raisins out to the garden, spread them on the celery, and ate the stalk while it was still planted. "Now that's the freshest it can get!"

That's pretty much how I feel about eating Epoisses while in Epoisses. I decide it's not enough to eat the Epoisses near the town, or even just in the town, I must be at the epicenter -- by the old castle of Epoisses. If you're wondering why it's a solid block of cheese, it's a particularly old nubbin of Epoisses, and the rest was eaten earlier when it was its more typical runny/soft texture.


  1. Best line... That's pretty much how I feel about eating Epoisses while in Epoisses. I decide it's not enough to eat the Epoisses near the town, or even just in the town, I must be at the epicenter -- by the old castle of Epoisses. I am going to be there in two weeks...

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