Why do we wash cheese?

When you visit our shops, you will see a veritable mountain range of different cheeses on our counters. Hard cheeses piled up high in peaks, little pyramids of goat's cheeses stacked up on each other and then a cluster of orangey-pink rinded cheeses. This category is known as the “washed rinds,” because their rinds are quite literally washed, which develops this signature colour. Next to the rest of our range, these cheeses stand out with their sticky looking coats and their often-oozing pastes.

Washing cheese is not only done for aesthetic reasons, however. There are specific processes done to these cheeses with desired outcomes in mind. We talked to Matt, who works in our cheese maturing team, to find out why we wash some cheeses and to help us to understand the techniques and theory that inform day-to-day decisions when looking after this category of cheeses.

Why do we wash cheese?

Washing cheese affects the colour and appearance of a rind and also has an impact on the flavour and texture of the cheese. The process encourages an environment for certain desired yeasts and bacteria to develop, as well as cleaning the rind of unwanted or less favourable moulds.

Which cheeses are washed?

Traditionally there tends to be two styles of cheese that get washed. There are washed Alpine style cheeses - such as Beaufort, Comté and Gruyère. The cheeses in this style which we sell include Ogleshield and Templegall. Ogleshield came into being because our cheese maturer at the time, Bill Oglethorpe experimented with washing a cheese called Jersey Shield. However we don't typically wash this style of cheeses in our maturing rooms nowadays. These cheeses tend to be washed by the cheesemakers, although if we were working with a cheesemaker to make a specific improvement or understand a particular area of the maturation we might do still some washing in house in the short term.

The style of cheese that we wash regularly in our maturing arches are more akin to what are sometimes known as monastery-style cheeses. They tend to be smaller, higher moisture cheeses, typically sold as whole cheeses or in large wedges. Continental cheeses in this style which you may know might include Époisses, Langres, Pont-l'Évêque, Reblochon, Taleggio or Vacherin. Our range of British and Irish washed rinds currently includes Little Rollright, EvenlodeSt Cera, Edmund Tew, Durrus, Gubbeen, Riseley, Apatha and St James.

How does washing the rind affect the appearance of cheese?

Washing encourages the proliferation of microbes with orange/red/pink pigments. A baceria called Brevibacterium linens is often given the credit for these colours, but there are other microbes which contribute to these typical washed rind colours too. There's a fascinating illustration of this here. 

Washing also eradicates the moulds that would develop without this intervention. Riseley is a washed version of Wigmore. When they arrive with us the rind of the cheese is attempting to grow the white mould rind we see on Wigmore. Washing them provides a better growing ground for bacteria and yeasts and the rind becomes unsuitable for the white mould Penicillum candidum

The image below shows a striking contrast between washed Apatha in the foreground, and cheese that has just arrived from the farm in the background.  

How does washing the rind affect the flavour of cheese?

Washing rinds stimulates the development of rind microbes which release aroma compounds into the atmosphere and into the curd as the cheese matures. The room in which our washed rind cheeses mature is notably pungent and smells quite strongly of sulphur and ammonia. Washed rind cheeses tend to have an especially farmy, funky, savoury set of flavours. These can be polarising, but if you enjoy upfront or challenging flavours you really should try washed rind cheeses. With this group of cheeses, at least the range that Neal’s Yard Dairy sells, the bark is often worse than the bite. Some of the rinds can be very punchy, but these give way to milkier flavours in the paste, making the cheeses very balanced overall.

How does washing the rind affect the texture of cheese?

Frequently washing a cheese’s rind changes the texture of the cheese by encouraging the breakdown of the cheese’s paste. Adding moisture to the cheese stimulates the activity of the surface-ripening flora. It may sound odd, but the bacteria and yeasts essentially “eat” the cheese from the surface inwards. They neutralise the cheese’s lactic acid which makes the curd more alkaline and liquefies the paste. This is what causes the layer of soft ‘squidge’ that can sometimes be seen under the rind.