Pass the (Stinky) Cheese, Please!


This week, the warm weather got me thinking about vacation. But with actual travel plans still a few weeks away, I made do with a mini-staycation: a long, lazy French style picnic in the park. And by French-style, I mean a picnic with a heavy emphasis on BREAD and CHEESE. The baguette was so good and the cheese so creamy, that if squinted a bit, I could almost believe that I was picnicking in the Jardin de Luxembourg, in Paris.

The experience got me pondering cheese as, really, a joyful mystery of life. How is it that cheese can be so stinky but we like it so much? Luckily, science has an answer. 

The notable cheese stench comes from bacteria growing on the cheese. For instance, Époisses de Bourgogne is French cheese with a particularly noticable ...aroma, which is caused because of a brining process: the outside of the cheese is washed in brine when it is made, thereby attracting more bacteria to the rind of the cheese. This process gives the cheese its signature color, flavor, and, of course, smell. A more well-known washed-rind cheese is Comté. Blue cheeses also undergo a process to encourage the growth of bacteria; instead of getting washed, blue cheese is punctured. Resulting porousness gives bacteria lots of hospitable places, which become visible as the distinctive blue lines. 

But, how are these stinky cheeses so delicious? Scientists explain this with a phenomenon called 'backwards smelling.' Essentially, when you eat the cheese, it's aroma molecules are released and hit receptors in the back of your nose, which interpret them differently than receptors at the front your nose. Rather than interpreting the molecules as 'stinky', your brain alters its interpretation to be more compatible with the creamy input from your taste buds. And so, cheese earns a special stink-exception from our sensory system.