You might never have heard of Maroilles cheese from France but believe me, if you ever come across it – you won’t forget it.
It’s pronounced “mar-wahl” and it has been around for centuries – in fact it is one of the oldest cheeses in the world and is said to date back to the 7th Century when it was made by a monks in the Abbey of Maroilles in Nord, Nord-Pas de Calais in the north of France.
It is a very smelly cheese – in a good way.
I first came across it in Lille. I was at a restaurant called the Guingette de la Marine, I’d just been cycling in Lille with friends, we wanted real food afterwards! The restaurant is one of those authentic little places that pepper the region, there were wooden swings hanging from the ceiling in front of the bar, and old man with a hat sat there nursing his pastis and moaning about politicians. A fabulous old hurdy gurdy organ sat in one corner, all sorts of artefacts littered the walls, fabulous French music played and there was a big blackboard menu. On it was a dish called flamiche Maroilles. I asked my French friends what it was – a sort of cheese pie they said, with Maroilles and they nodded to each other knowingly. One of them told me Maroilles was a local cheese, in that it came from Maroilles in the region and is very strong, very pungent but less so when cooked as it would be in the cheese pie.
Well, I am a nothing ventured, nothing gained type of person so I went ahead and ordered it.
You could smell it before the waitress came from the kitchen… strong, earthy, powerful. It was ferried across the room with reverence, it felt like everyone was watching its progress and I could almost swear that I got a nod or two from other diners – a sort of secret acknowledgement of my excellent good taste.
The dish was placed in front of me and my friends and half the restaurant watched as I took the first bite “c’est fort” they said, its forceful.
It was hot, liquid, sticky, strong, full bodied, fermented and fruity and very very smelly with a just hint of sweetness and – absolutely delicious. Apparently it goes really well with beer and champagne but can be tricky with red wines. For me it was love at first bite and it doesn’t taste as strong as it smells. Although it has a strong scent, it isn’t the strongest smelling local cheese – that tag is reserved for Vieux Boulogne which has been officially declared the smelliest cheese in the entire world after tests on numerous cheeses by boffins at Oxford University (yes they do get paid to do this sort of research!). I am working my way up to this particular cheese if you want to know.
Maroilles is made exclusively from cow’s milk, it is a soft cheese with a salt water washed rind (a bit like Munster cheese) and known as the King of Cheeses in the north. It’s made in Nord-Pas de Calais and Picardy although it takes its name from the town of Maroilles where it was first created. Apparently the local villagers were instructed to convert cow’s milk to cheese on Saint Jean Baptiste’s day (24 June) to donate to the Abbey of Maroilles 100 days later on Saint Remigious’ (Remy) day (1st October). Saint Remy was the Bishop of Reims who converted Clovis, King of the Franks to christianity and baptised him on Christmas Day 496.
Maroilles cheese is said to have been popular ever since, in the middle ages it was known as “marvellous Maroilles” and King Henry IV of France loved to eat it. The cheese takes a little longer to mature in its present format – about four months and is kept in a humid cellar where it develops the pungent smell and a lovely red crust.
If you come across it – give it a go – it’s not often you’ll get to eat a cheese that’s been around for more than 1300 years…