I’ve been eating a lot of British cheese recently as there’s so much to discover on my own doorstep and so many great stories behind our cheeses that I hadn’t felt the urge to stray very far afield. But there’s one cheese I keep hearing about that’s causing such a ruckus at the moment that I felt compelled to check it out. And that cheese is mimolette.
The BBC reported this week that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) described mimolette as consisting ‘in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food.’ They’ve ordered a blockade on the cheese and about 1.5 tonnes is currently being held in a warehouse in New Jersey. The cheese has been imported into the US for more than 20 years but, as anyone who’s tried to complete a visa application for the States knows, it ain’t so easy to get in these days and thus poor mimolette is lost in transit. American foodies are predictably furious; there’s even a Facebook page – ‘Save the mimolette’ – with more than 4,500 outraged members.
So, brace yourselves – readers of a sensitive disposition may want to turn from the screen about now – I bring you filthy, putrid mimolette:
Hmmm. I know what you’re thinking. I have to admit I was expecting to unwrap something a bit more, I don’t know, manky-looking. Something oozier or mouldier or hairier. It isn’t even very stinky. Admittedly, the orange hue is a bit on the eighties dayglo side but the kids tell me that that’s back in fashion now anyway. So, what is the problem with mimolette? Well, turns out it has a bit of a *whispers* flea problem.
Okay, technically they’re not fleas, they’re cheese mites but either way they’ve been used in the production of the cheese for hundreds of years. Mimolette is a hard, unpasteurised, cow’s milk cheese traditionally produced around the city of Lille in France and is also known as Boule de Lille. Another name is vieux Hollande due to its production process being similar to that of Edam. One story is that it dates back to the seventeenth century when Louis XIV wanted to decrease imports into France. As a result, Edam, a Dutch cheese especially popular in the north of the country was banned. Locals began to produce their own Edam-like cheese, the difference being that mimolette is coloured with annatto, a natural plant-based substance, also used to colour cheeses like Red Leicester, although originally they used carrot juice. It also has a natural (rather than waxed) rind – and this is what the US have been getting cheesed off about (see what I did there?)
If you look again at the photo (can you bear to? are you okay with that?) you will see that the greyish rind has lots of little holes in it. These are caused by microscopic cheese mites burrowing into the rind. Mimolette, unlike Edam, is usually matured and producers believe that the mites help the cheese to breathe and develop its flavour and so the mites are introduced on purpose. Most are then blown off with compressed air or wiped off but some remain and the FDA is concerned that they could produce an allergic reaction in some people. Hence why mimolette is kicking her heels in New Jersey.
And the taste? Well, it’s not dissimilar to Reypenaer VSOP, an aged Dutch cheese that I tried a few weeks ago. It has a similar fudgey, caramel taste but with a sharper, nuttier edge. And, yes, I tried the rind but it was a bit chewy and unpleasant. It’s a nice enough cheese but probably not one that I’ll be putting into my top ten all-time faves and I’m guessing that lots of American turophiles would feel the same. But I don’t really think that’s the point of their protest. Imagine if the government here tried to ban a similarly inoffensive-tasting, slightly fudgey cheese, say, Parmesan; I think they’d be some strong letters to the Telegraph, don’t you?
Ironically, the colouring annatto has been proved to provoke allergic reactions in some people but the FDA don’t seem to be fussed about that…shhh, best not tell them…