Livarot is one of the oldest types of cheese in France and it smells like it—like its been hanging around gaining strength since the 1600s. A specialty of the Normandy region, Livarot is a soft “washed rind” cheese which means it is typically bathed in a wash of salted water which helps break down the curd from the outside, influencing the texture, aroma and flavor of the entire cheese. The “bath” does absolutely nothing to cure the smell.
It may be an urban legend, but I’ve since read that Livarot is banned on public transportation in France. Its earthy aroma has been described by some as reminiscent of feces or “barnyard.” I would never have ordered something with that description, but it first came to me on a cheese plate in a restaurant in Honfleur, in Normandy, a small slice, apparently exposed to the air long enough to diminish its signature odor. And it was great.
Good enough to make me want to purchase some at the market the next morning, in the process of packing up a few goodies for our lunch that day— a little french bread, sausage and a bit of the cider for which the region is also famous, and which smells much better than the cheese.
I packed our picnic into my backpack, which stayed locked in our small closed car until lunch time, imparting a zesty Livarot odor to our car, a smell somewhere between stinky feet and a gym bag full of recently used hockey gear.
We were able to eat our picnic in the open air and again the taste of the Livarot seemed wonderfully unrelated to the smell. We couldn’t eat all the cheese, so frugal as I am, I wrapped up the leftover cheese and returned it to my backpack for later consumption.
In his wonderful book French Lessons: Adventures in Knife, Fork and Corkscrew, Peter Mayle devotes a whole chapter to the Livarot cheese fair in the town of Livarot, and in particular, the cheese eating competition. The rules: a time limit of 15 minutes during which contestants must eat their way through two whole cheeses, each weighing about two pounds. “Livarot,” he says, “is not a modest cheese. It announces itself to the nose long before it is anywhere near you mouth, with a piercing, almost astringent aroma.”
That may have been the reason why that evening when we checked into our hotel, I noticed that the hotel clerk and other people in the lobby appeared to move away from me or avert their faces. “Madam!” I realized that I was wearing the Livarot-filled backpack and exuding that aroma wherever I went. Formidable!
Have you ever had a food-related travel incident? Please tell us.