My nose is bleeding. My palms are sweating and my brain is close to breaching the confines of my skull. The next day I sit at my desk, the reek of the night before climbing out my pores as I burp my way through the day, downing pints of water to lessen the burn.
I've been addicted to cheese for as long as I can remember.
Each time, I crave a stronger hit. I want it more stinkier, more abrasive. Anyone who really likes cheese, those who go for the last smears of festering blue that stick to the cheese board or walk at glacial speed past Neal's Yard Dairy to get a few good lungfuls of its feet-y cloud, will know what I'm talking about.
When it comes to cheese, I'm in whey too deep. But apparently my love of the stinky stuff has some scientific backing. Cheese is full of casomorphins—the proteins that come from the digestion of milk proteins. As you may have guessed from the name, casomorphins produce an opioid effect, originating from the calming trigger animals produce in milk for their young.
While there may be a cute, primal reason for the cheese-induced stupor I so often crave, I feel like, since one particularly fabulous encounter, I am forever chasing a moving mental target. I recently had an ultimate high at a friend's dinner party to which nothing can now compete. I can't remember its name—foolishly—but it was so strong, sharp and sinus-singingly potent that it gave me a nosebleed. It was the best nosebleed of my life.
Ever since that evening I have been on a quiet, very private quest to find the cheese. No one else can remember what it was called either, so it was down to my own sleuthing. I decided to move between three London cheese havens to try their biggest, boldest wares, and maybe, just maybe, find something that would touch the sides of that giddy, bloody high.
My first stop was, of course, Neal's Yard. I kicked things off with a Montgomery; crystally, pongy and leagues beyond your average Cheddar, yet nothing to truly set the senses on fire. Feeling the need the need for something softer, I set on the blues. A Cashel delivered a sharp, creamy, granule-laden kick, immediately topped by a Crozier. Both produced by Beechmont in Ireland, the Crozier offers a Cashel-on-speed option, with every element of the Cashel pumped up to the max. This was truly a delicious, whack-round-the-face kind of cheese, but the directness of blues often means they often miss out on the rounded intensity of the really soft, humming cheeses.
Next, I honed in on a Cardo, a mix of savoury, thick rind and floral, unpasteurised goat cheese flavours. It was a creamy, pungent cheese that hits you right at the back of the tongue. Onto the Stinking Bishop, a cheese of comedy proportions that is often—wrongly—thought of as top dog in the world of strong cheeses. Mr Bishop packs a punch (not least to your nostrils), but is definitely more style than substance—the viscous, rubbery innards breaching its dusty pink rind is a sight for sore eyes, but I was still nowhere near the dizzying heights of the nosebleed cheese.
Finally, I tried an Adrahan, with its very strong smell and mouldy orange washed rind. This cheese offered a deep, smoky array of flavours and a rich, sticky consistency and was the clear winner here. The bloody floodgates were twitching, but I still felt the best was yet to come.
My second stop was Spitalfield's specialty French cheese shop, Androuet. The French don't fuck around with cheese and the sweet, sweet pungency knocks you for six as you walk through the door. I flew straight off the blocks here with a roof-of-mouth obliterator, the Soumaintrain. This is up there with the boldest, sharpest cheeses I've tried, hailing from Burgundy and with a depth of flavour to match the region's heavy wines. My face began to bubble gently with sweat, my cheeks as ruddy as a schoolboy on the rugby field. This was promising.
Next, I was handed a Perail des Cabasses, a firmer, ewe's milk cheese with a similar fabrication to the divine Roquefort. With a firm, almost crunchy crust (who doesn't love mould with the texture of a biscuit?), a dense body and a pungent sweetness, this is a cheese for only the strongest of character. The Frenchmen saved the best till last, though, when they wheeled out an U Bel Fiuritu.
Still four weeks from full maturity, with an amber red crust and a visible sweat—yes, the cheese itself was sweating from its own strength—I knew this was something special.
The name translates to "small, beautiful, flower", which is the exact opposite of this cheese, in the best way possible. Frosted with patches of mould and grit and with a herbal flavour imparted from the Corsican scrubs the ewes grazed on, this cheese was so rich, so meaty that it almost tasted... spicy. The sweet tones balanced it out, though, and left a lasting aftertaste that kept unfolding more flavours every time I swallowed.
No blood dripped from my nose, but this was about as close to cheese nirvana as I could imagine and I took a gigantic wheel home to try it when it reaches full maturity. Everyone on the tube carriage home loved me.
Finally, and with a sneaking suspicion that I might not meet the brutal assault of the U Bel Fiuritu, I headed to La Fromagerie in Marylebone, where I was told never, as in the case of ol' Stinking Bishop, to judge a cheese by its cover. They told me that strength and pungency aren't mutually exclusive, that the top and back of the mouth will pick up on the sweetness of a cheese while the sides detect the dry, bitter notes. Raw milk cheeses are, apparently, almost always going to offer the best complexity of flavours as nothing is removed during the process, only added. I also learned that the most powerful UK cheese comes from the Isle of Mull (hiya, Macca!), where animals graze on spent whisky grain husks.
Here I began with a Nuns of Caen, an unpasteurised sheep milk's creation from Charles Martell of Stinking Bishop fame. Washed in Martell's own vintage pear spirit with a pinkish hue and moist, crumbly outer crust this is the kind of individual cheese that The Fromagerie is known for. With a bouncy consistency, a nutty, floral, sweet taste and very little residue or after taste this is a truly distinctive cheese, yet not quite up there with the intensity I'm after.
Next up, an Alp-Bergkaese, a hard cow's milk cheese from a high altitude dairy in Austria. Intense, long lasting, chewy, and with a flavour described by my new cheese advisor as "akin to a roast beef dinner", this was pretty special. Kept for an extra year to build deep flavours this may not offer the blubbery pizazz of some of the soft cheeses, but is a deeply-rounded cheese for a seasoned palette. By this point, though, I was finally cheesed out and plagued with an ever-so-slight whiff of concern for my heart.
I headed home, smelling like a highly-matured distillation of teenage boy PE sock, sweating like no one's business. I was euphoric. Giddy. The U Bel Fiuritu was the winner of the day and the closest I came to truly losing my shit. I can't wait to try it again once it's grown up a bit. As for the fabled nosebleed cheese? It remains at large, a mythical beast begging me to find it.
Darling, I'll always be looking for you.