The Genie and Stinky Cheese.
One of my true pleasures is to eat a stinky cheese.1 I don’t eat cheese often, but when I do, I tend to spend my dairy budget on an unusual cheese, preferably a raw milk French cheese.2,3 A great stinky cheese, like all acquired tastes, does not appeal at first. It yields only after you wrestle with it for a prolonged time, after which it captivates, then captures you. The tension between nose and mouth delights its champions as much as it bewilders its censors. The thing about stinky cheeses is that they smell bad but taste good. In this respect they’re like some people you meet from time to time.
Every other month or so I traipse around the local fromageries for my periodic fix of pungency.4,5 There I buy cheeses like a Belgian Limburger or a porous, elastic Danish Esrom. When the mood takes me I opt for an oozy Époisses de Bourgogne, the latter being so stinky that it is reputedly banned from the Parisian public transportation system.6 These cheeses are inspiring. They are not for the timid. They do not appeal to the undeveloped palate of minors, and they especially do not appeal to six-year old Thomas7, who for his life cannot imagine how someone could be so outré as to physically approach them, let alone eat them. To uncomprehending Thomas, all my qualities, all my achievements, all my goodness if there is any – in fact the entire essence of my being – is reduced to one thing and one thing only: Alex is a stinky cheese eater. That defines me in his eyes.
A few months ago I picked up an old ten-litre demijohn still covered in broken wicker-work at a garden sale in Newlands. It’s the type of outsize bottle that once contained Portuguese wine but that on rare occasions traps genies. This particular one had. I was telling Thomas, who was visiting, how, after I got home with the bottle, I sat at my patio table and started to uncork it unsuspectingly. As soon as the bottle was opened, smoke started whirling out of it, and out of the smoke a huge genie wafted and started to form before me.
“Thomas, it was right here, right here at this very table,” I said. His eyes widened.
“Yes Thomas, right here. The genie, who was dressed in mauve and maroon and wore a scarlet turban with a sparkling emerald in the middle and peacock feathers on the side, came floating before me in the lotus position. He was so close I could smell the fragrance of his Arabic perfumes. His slippers curled at the points and his giant earrings shimmered in the twilight. He folded his arms, bowed and said in a solemn voice: ‘Master, you have freed me, your wish is my command. Make one wish and it shall be granted!’ Of course, Tommy, you know that genies can do anything but three things. Do you remember what they are? I told you last week.” Thomas’s command of language is pleasingly starting to wrap around concept.
“Yes I do,” he replied with a cocky pride. “A genie cannot kill someone for you. A genie cannot bring people back from the dead. And a genie cannot make anybody fall in love with you. Otherwise a genie can do anything.”8
“Clever boy Thomas, you remembered!”
In that moment, I sat back briefly and savoured the wondrous things that genies had brought into my life: A sound mind, good health, cherished friends, a passion for things, imagination, a treasured possession or two, things I haven’t quite deserved, lucky breaks and some luckier escapes. Genies have given me wondrous books, a love for music, Dalí and Degas, Shakespeare, things French, Oscar Wilde, family, Bach, Ēliane and Lily, Newton, Kant, liberalism and a healthy agnosticism… right up to the breezy run I was able to enjoy earlier this evening. A few genies had even twisted the rules by tricking a few souls to fall in love with me over the years… Yes, genies had given me much.
“So, Al-e-e-e-e-e-x, what did you ask for? What?” enquired Thomas, leaning forward, all eager.
“Do you really want to know what I asked for, Thomas?” I said, returning from my reverie. He ceased to blink. “Why, ha! I asked for a plate of stinky cheese!”
At this, Thomas ceased to breathe. Of all things in the world. I was certifiably mad. This confirmed it.
“And Thomas,” I hastily continued, ignoring his asphyxiation, “hardly had I made my wish when Sim Sala Bim! – the most heavenly stinky cheeses on a silver salver sprang up before me, right here, and with that: Alakazam! – the genie disappeared in a puff. Thomas, you can’t imagine the thrill I got!”
Thomas eventually resuscitated from what was a sickly pallor. Little boys can have bass voices. “You asked for what?…” Long pause. “Why didn’t you ask for a bigger house?”
“Because I already have a big house and it’ll be a bother to pack up and move.”
“Why then didn’t you ask for a fast car, Alex?” he said, choking.
“Because my car is already too fast.”
Thought. Pause. Thought.
“OK, why didn’t you ask for lots of money then, with which you can buy lots of cheese?”
“Because, Thomas, I would then have had to go to the shop to buy the cheese and I couldn’t wait.”
That flummoxed him.10 Thomas sighed, dropped his chin onto his hands and stared out blankly at the world. He studied me for a long time in the cold clarity of the afternoon and came to one lasting conclusion: Stinky cheese softens the brain.
And with that, he curled his lip, shook his head, got up and walked away.
- I prefer the term strong cheese, but I’ll for once grant the detractors their term.
“Although many cheeses may have a bit of pungency about them, it’s the washed-rind family that takes top honors in the stinky cheese division. During the aging process, the rinds of these cheeses are rinsed — with anything from brine to brandy, wine, beer or even pear cider — which works to inhibit mold and encourage the growth of friendly bacteria. The bacteria Brevibacterium linens is what gives the rind its aroma; it just so happens that linens is also the very same bacteria responsible for making feet stink. Fortunately, although some of the pungency permeates the cheese itself, most of it remains in the rind, leaving a soft-ripened or semi-firm cheese within that is usually milder in flavor than a pair of fetid feet.” – From Seventeen Top Stinky Cheeses in http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/stories/17-top-stinky-cheeses.
- Most commercially available milk cheeses are pasteurised cheeses. Raw milk cheeses are unpasteurised. That is, the milk from which they’re made is not treated to kill off all bacteria and other pathogens, therefore it makes cheeses with more flavor and complexity than does pasteurised milk. Raw milk cheeses are part of traditional diets in large parts of Europe and are made on a small scale in South Africa by artisanal cheese makers. Producers of raw milk cheeses subject their products to stringent conditions and testing to ensure there is no contamination from harmful bacteria.
- There are non-milk cheeses made from soya.
- Locally made cheeses are making great strides in most of the six basic varieties of cheese. A visit to a specialist Cape Town cheese shop such as the Culture Cheese Club in Bree Street will show up the most engaging cheeses made in micro-dairies in places as diverse as Bapsfontein and Beaconsfield . A map of artisanal South African cheeses even exists at South African Artisanal Cheese Makers – Google. La Crèmerie in the Cape Town Gardens Centre imports many French cheeses, and you can find a selection of non-French imported cheeses (such as Esrom) at Raith Gourmet in the same centre.
- The annual South African cheese festival was held at the Sandringham Estate outside Stellenbosch between the 30th April and the 2nd May 2016. I went along on Sunday the 1st May, as did one half of the Western Cape’s population. You couldn’t swing a cheese in the halls. Lots of non-cheese food stalls, especially olives, meat and wine, as well as stalls dominated by the large commercial cheese brands. You had to shop well to get the odd gem.
- Probably an urban legend, although no-one is allowed to carry anything on the metro that is dangerous or offensive to other passengers. Some people could object to Époisses de Bourgogne being transported on the metro on the latter grounds.
- Thomas – not his real name.
- Despite these powers, genies cannot free themselves from stoppered flasks.
- When I pressed him, Thomas told me he would have asked the genie for a Luke Skywalker suit (Star Wars?). To each his predilection.