I’d heard so much talk about Stinking Bishop that I was starting to think it was some sort of novelty cheese. Dubbed ‘the stinkiest cheese in Britain’ in 2009, it seems to be the marmite of cheese-lovers – you either love it or hate it. My sister’s boyfriend adores it but the Other Half thinks it’s the devil’s work. Its appearance in a Wallace and Gromit film where it raised Wallace from the dead further cemented its reputation as a hardcore cheese.
I didn’t want to try a cheese just because it might be revolting (if one more person says to me, ‘Oh you should try Primula with Prawns, haha’ I might have to kneecap them.) I like a stinky cheese as much as the next cheese-freak but wasn’t sure I wanted to eat one purely based on its reputation as being disgusting. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t buy a bottle of wine because someone told me it tasted like tom-cat wee.
But then I started to read about its producer, Charles Martell, and his lifetime passion for reviving and promoting the Gloucestershire cattle breed and he didn’t sound like the kind of man that would make a cheese for a laugh. So when I saw some innocently lurking on a market stall on a recent visit to my parents, I was torn. I was so much in two minds that I bought some goat’s cheese and walked round the town for a while but my mind kept returning to the squidgy pinkish wheel and so I found myself back with the jolly stallholder, asking for a slice of the Stinking Bishop. ‘I’ll double-bag it for you’ he said, without a trace of irony. I joked with him about having to get it back to London, whereupon he told me about a friend of his that had bought an entire wheel and left it in his car at Heathrow when he went on holiday. When he returned, it took nine professional steam cleans to get rid of the smell. I was a bit afraid by this point.
Stinking Bishop is a pasteurised, soft, cow’s milk cheese with a washed rind, produced by Charles Martell and Son in Dymock, Gloucestershire. It’s the washed rind that gives the cheese its stinky reputation. As I learned from eating Burwash Rose, rind-washing means that a cheese is soaked, sprayed or rubbed down with a liquid when young. Washing the rind encourages one particular bacteria – brevibacterium linens – and it’s this bacteria that makes the cheese smell (and your feet smell like cheese, incidentally). Stinking Bishop is washed every four weeks in perry (pear cider), a beverage in abundance in the Gloucestershire countryside. It’s the variety of pear that’s nicknamed Stinking Bishop and legend has it that the pear in turn was named after a local farmer renowned for his bad and boozy behaviour, Frederick ‘Stinking’ Bishop.
If all this makes Stinking Bishop sound like a bit of a reprobate cheese, it may comfort you to learn that the recipe is derived from cheese made by an order of Cistercian monks who were founded in the eleventh century and apparently farmed the local land. Many rind-washed cheeses can trace their origins back to monks and the first such cheeses were produced over 700 years ago. Monks were predominantly vegetarian and the theory is that the ‘meaty’ flavour of the washed rind cheeses provided a welcome supplement to their diet.
And the cheese? I was a little afraid of what I’d taken on but was reassured by the fact that a smoked goat’s cheese had managed to hold its own in the same bag. I braced myself and took a bite. It was creamy and oozy and, as I’ve discovered with other rind-washed cheeses (and indeed any cheese with a rind), the paste didn’t taste at all rancid. It did have a slight meaty edge to it which I could imagine over time could develop into something a bit terrifying, but I certainly wasn’t repulsed by it.
I’ve only ever tasted one truly disgusting cheese, a certain little something that I bought from a French market in London once. I can’t remember its name or type but can remember having to store it in sealed Tupperware – and also that it annoyed my then horrible housemates no end, which could only be a good thing.