PERHAPS not the ‘sweet smell of success’ more ‘ a pong of perfection ’. Either way, Maroilles cheese can craftily worm its way on to your plate irrespective of the time of day. And it’s not the only one dating back to the Middle Ages when French cheese-making became the domain of the monasteries.
Another regional contender, Vieux Lille – itself derived from Maroilles washed with brine for three months – is likewise not for the faint-hearted. The alternate names of ‘Puant de Lille’ and ‘Puant Macéré’ are a little more descriptive, the latter literally being translated as ‘stinking pickle’.
But don’t blame the cheese, named after the Le Nord village in rural French Flanders. It is the semi–soft washed orange-red rind that creates the pungent smell. Suffice to say it’s best not to store it in the fridge too long – providing an excellent excuse to immediately tuck into what is a remarkably good cheese, a view shared by several French kings.
Invented in the 10th century by a monk in the Abbey of Maroilles, the cheese came from cow’s milk converted into fresh squares by local farmers every June 24th, Saint Jean Baptiste Day. Later, on October 1, the feast day of Saint Remi, the aged cheeses were delivered to the Abbey, leaving the monks to distribute them to the Champagne grape harvesters for lunch and dinner. October 1st is still known as Maroilles Day in the region.
Today Maroilles can be made in four sizes, with ripening times varying accordingly. After resting ten days in a ventilated area, they’re moved to an ageing cellar and washed and brushed for several weeks, creating the coloured rind by introducing the Brevibacterium linens bacteria. The cheese itself tastes soft and creamy, with a slight sweetness and a lingering flavour. It’s said to be best enjoyed from May to August, but is also good from March until December.
Originally strong mature cheeses were thought to be the domain of the poor and the workers, especially among the northern miners who enjoyed Vieux Lille while down the pits. They are now more popular than ever in France, with local sayings such as ‘The more it stinks the better it is’. It has certainly left its mark on the whole of Nord- Pas de Calais. Though reckoned to be best enjoyed with a strong beer or black coffee, I confess to have sampled it , like so many other fans, in one form or another at every meal. Maroilles has two cousins. First is the Dauphin, left to age for three to four months, which hides a firm-textured body with a yeasty aroma. Thanks to the addition of tarragon, parsley, cloves and black pepper, the flavour is strong and spicy. The name derives from Dauphin, son of Louis XIV (The Sun King) which, once shaped like a dolphin, is nowadays mostly sold in a hexagonal shape. The other Boulette Avesnes is conically shaped and generally served with a good beer or gin.
FANCY SOMETHING MORE GENTLE ?
For a gentler taste I recommend The Abbaye du Mont des Cats cheese made by monks in a monastery of the same name in the town of Godewaersveld, again in Le Nord. Cow’s milk from local farms is used and the flavour is mild with subtle hints of milk and hay. Also vying for attention in the same region is a disk shaped and soft textured cheese from Bergues while in the Montreuil sur Mer region of Pas de Calais, the children of established cheese-makers Alfred and Marie-Claire Henguelle produce various flavours of cheese at Ferme du Sire de Créquy, Fruges,
In 2018 one of the daughters, Ludivine Lefrançois, opened Caseus, stocking 250 types of cheese, on the Grand-Place of Montreuil sur Mer, (see: https://ladestinationgastronomique.com/en/2018/11/25/la-cote-dopale-aussi-une-terre-de-fromages/ ) Alongside Dutch, English and Swiss cheeses, are varieties from the local Opal Coast, ranging from Fruges to the coast beyond Boulogne These include the afore-rementioned Sire de Créquy, along with Tomme de Raoul, Sablé de Wissant, Pavé de Montreuil, Ecume de Wimereux, Fleur de Fruges, Fruité du Boulonnais, Coeur Hesdinois, Chti à la Bière and Dôme du Boulonnais.
‘ In an average shopper’s basket, there are at least one or two cheeses from this region,’ says Ludivine, who learnt her skills at making local cheeses while working with her parents. ‘ The English love them, the Belgians too, basically all foreigners. One or two we make specially for ceremonies or family celebrations.’ Today they are produced by her brother Damien and sister, Alice. Opal Coast cheeses first appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, for mostly financial reasons. ‘ This was the era of milk quotas,’ explained Alice. ‘ It was necessary to create added value to the milk rather than selling it or throwing it away, as long as the farm was of medium size, between 50 and 60 hectares .’
The family were encouraged in their ventures by cheese-refiner and master cheese-maker Philippe Olivier, affectionately known as The Big Cheese by the numerous cross-Channel visitors who head to his widely known cheese shop, stocking varieties from throughout France, in the historic heart of Boulogne. Nowadays his son Romain religiously maintains the vast knowledge passed down from father to son for nearly 60 years.
Stemming from a family of cheese collectors, refiners and merchants since 1907, Philippe Olivier cheeses can be found on the menus of the areas top restaurants as well as in their shops in Lille and Calais, along with Le Touquet, Cambrai, St-Quentin, Herlies and Epernay. (see https://philippeolivier.fr/ )
While Maroilles can be bought in the UK, George Ward, manager of Cheesemakers of Canterbury’s counter at The Goods Shed, Canterbury, suggests a few British alternatives: ‘ Rind-washed cheeses are now being made all across the UK, ‘ he said, ‘ of which Stinking Bishop is probably the best known, thanks to Wallace and Grommett. But Burwash Rose, Isle of Avalon and Rollright are just a few further examples. Yes, they can get pretty pungent, as the rind is where all the action is. But they need not overpower. In Northern France they are made into a very popular salad with sharp tasting leaves, such as rocket and chicory for a first course appetiser.’
Thanks, George, I will remember that…
© John Ruler