Tete de moine cheese with its specialized serving tool, the girolle.
One thing for which the French are known is their stinky cheeses. And again, smelly for Americans usually signals not fresh. We have our beloved stinky Limburger cheese here in Cincinnati that we pile with even stinkier onions on rye bread. But for the most part, our cheeses are homogenized, pasteurized, and not so stinky.
Anywhere else in the cheesemaking world, where they’re are aged and not pasteurized, smell is a sign of quality. For one such stinky cheese, tete de moine, the stink is so important to the flavor it has its own serving apparatus called the girolle. The apparatus, invented in 1982, has an axle implanted in the center of the cheese, with a lowering blade that scrapes thin layers of the cheese into rosettes that curl and form a sort of cone shape. The goal is to increase the surface area to be oxidized to help develop the odor and thus flavor. The serving of this cheese is quite a spectacle, equal to the intensity of its flavor.
The monk’s tonsure or bald spot.
The cheese translates to ‘monk’s head.’ It’s named so because the shaving of the top of the cheese is said to resemble the shaving the top of a skull to create a monk’s tonsure or bald spot. The cheese was Invented over eight centuries ago in the mountainous Jura region of French speaking Switzerland. It was made by the monks of the abbey of Bellelay, in the community of Saicourt. It’s a favorite of Chef Jacques Pepin, and one of the stinky cheeses served in his cheese course. Pepin was born in Bourg-a-Bresse, on the French side of the Jura Mountains, so this cheese is a delight from his childhood. His parents owned a restaurant in the town called Le Pelican, where they served the cheese.
The stinky cheese course at Pepin’s Jacques Restaurant – with tete de moine in the center.
The semi-hard cheese is made from unpasteurized, whole cow’s milk. It’s lightly cooked and formed into a cylinder with a height equal to or about 70% of its diameter. It’s aged for a minimum of two and a half months on a small spruce plank, and is typically paired with a dry, white wine. It also goes well with fresh or dried fruits. The flavor is more intense than the more widely known Swiss cheeses like Gruyere and Emmental. It’s sweet and slightly tangy, with notes of musty wood and nuttiness.
The cheesemaking prowess of the Swiss monks was widely praised. And over its history, the cheese was used as payment by tenant farmers to their land owners. It was offered as gifts to the prince-bishops of Basel, Switzerland, and also used in legal settlements as currency.
Abbey Bellelay in Switzerland, where tete de moine was invented.
Since 2013, it has the appellation d’origine protegee (AOP) certification, which protects its style, ingredients, and geography of origin. It can only be called tete de moine if made in the Jura region with the ascribed recipe and method.
While produced by fewer than 10 cheese dairies of the Jura Mountains, it is exported throughout the world. Considered the calling card of the cheese making tradition of the Alps, it’s one of the world’s finest stinky cheeses, and one not too easy to come by in the U.S.