I love some good stinky cheese. Stinky cheese can often carry a pungency so strong that consuming it takes on a perverse appeal. I realize this affection can be difficult to rationalize for skeptics.
Ask different people how they feel about certain stinky cheeses and you’ll see a wide array of opinions. For some, ingesting these rancid rinds can be trying tests of endurance. But a good number of these cheeses, from taleggios to ouleouts, can assume flavor profiles that are rich and fulfilling, producing sensations that I can't often explain.
There’s scientific reason for this alchemy, succinctly captured in this two-minute clip from PBS’ Food—Delicious Science. The show premiered on Wednesday, illustrating, in layman’s terms, the biological and chemical principles that undergird the particular, peculiar mouthfeel some foods can take on in certain environments.
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This particular clip orbits around host James Wong, who’s eating époisses, a variety that smells like the interior of a podiatrist’s office. (I swear I’m not being hyperbolic here—it literally smells like the bottom of a human foot.) As the video expounds upon pretty briefly, the brain perceives these aromas differently once stinky cheese makes its way into your mouth, as opposed to, say, simply putting it against your nostrils. It’s a reaction dubbed “backwards smelling”, involving a careful choreography of these two senses, taste and smell, that shifts our perception of these odors and ultimately stimulates pleasure.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.