Sad news out of France this week: Robert Berthaut—the man responsible for reviving the iconic washed rind cheese Epoisses—passed away on Monday, at the age of 94. For sixty year, Berthaut’s family farm has been the world’s leading Epoisses producer, and the man himself was instrumental in getting the cheese protected designation of origin status in 1991.
Epossies was first created in the early 1500s, and it enjoyed rarefied status in France for centuries after. Napoleon was partial to it. It was dubbed the “king of all cheeses” by none other than Brillat-Savarin himself. Such superlatives go on and on.
But by the end of World War II, production of the cheese had all but ceased. The war had a particularly detrimental effect on the cheese’s namesake village, where the population dropped significantly. It wasn’t but fifty years earlier that more than 300 farms had been producing the Epoisses, and now none did.
Then, in 1956, Berthaut and his wife, Simone, decided to make a few wheels in the cellar of their home. They got the recipe from his aunt. The idea was that they’d use milk from their own cows and just have the cheese for themselves. But it turned out well—really well—and they began selling it in the small grocery they ran. It developed a reputation in town, and then word spread as tourists coming to visit the Epoisses castle would discover the cheese and tell tale of it back home. It wasn’t long until Robert and Simone shifted the focus of their lives to the production of Epoisses, and, thanks to them, the cheese was rescued from obsolescence and has since regained its status as one of France’s most celebrated wheels.
And well it should—Epoisses is straight up delicious. It is washed in a local brandy, marc de Bourgogne, and made according to very exacting milk standards and make processes. What results is a runny, smeary, custardy paste contained within a sticky orange rind, which is itself housed in a cylindrical wooden shell, so as to encourage the gooey cheese to maintain its shape. Pop the lid off and you’re going to get smells to roasted peanut skin. Cut back some rind, go right in with a spoon, and you’ll get flavors of rich lardo and salty, yeasty, slightly fermented bread. It’s hard to argue against Brillat-Savarin’s assessment.
And after 60 years, Fromagerie Berthaut remains far and away the world’s primary Epoisses producer. Our hearts go out to the town of Epoisses and the Berthaut family. We’ll be thinking of them this week and celebrating Robert by popping open one of his signature wooden cylinders.