To eat the rind or not to eat the rind, that is the question. A woman was very perplexed recently when I offered her a taste of Bonne Bouche; she said "it's blue!” She was lacking confidence in her knowledge of cheese rinds and in her cheesemonger. Bonne Bouche is an ash ripened goat cheese that has a grayish blue rind that is completely edible. The rind is coated with vegetable ash which is often used in cheesemaking. Humboldt Fog and Morbier are two classic examples of cheeses that use ash. Both have a line of ash through the center of the paste.
Many that night were calling Bonne Bouche a blue cheese but it's not, it just has a striking look which makes it a great addition to any cheese plate. I love Bonne Bouche, the ash coating helps the cheese age, prevents unwanted molds and intruders, and helps the paste get crazy runny and gooey. This cheese won best goat cheese at the 2010 American Cheese Society conference. You can learn more about Bonne Bouche at http://www.vermontcreamery.com/bonne-bouche/
Some cheeses have a natural rind like bandaged wrapped cheddar. This means that the truckle (term for a wheel of cheddar which refers to its shape) was wrapped in cheesecloth which is often coated in lard and then aged. Before the cheese goes to market the cheesecloth is removed but you can still see the hatch marks on the rind left behind from the texture of the cloth. You can choose to eat this rind if you like but it will be a bit dry. Similarly, other cheeses get a paper coating to their rind. If won’t kill you to eat paper but it won’t add much flavor.
Blue cheeses like Cashel blue and Mountain Gorgonzola have a natural rind. The rind on Mountain Gorgonzola can be dry and brittle. Often the natural rind on a blue cheese can be more concentrated in flavor. You can decide to eat them if you want. Some blue cheeses like Buttermilk Blue and Maytag blue have no rinds. Their rinds are removed before packaging.
There are a few rinds that you really don't want to eat. If a cheese is covered in wax, don't eat it unless you are nostalgic for the wax lips of your childhood. It won't kill you to eat wax but it also will not taste very good. Some chesses have a thick wax coating and others like Manchego or P’tit Basque have a very thin waxy coating. You can cut off these rinds and enjoy your cheese. When serving this type of cheese on a party platter, it is best to cut the wax off the sides of the wedge but leave the wax along the back as it will provide a bit of support while guests cut off chunks.
If a cheese has a wooden belt like Petit Sapin or Winnimere, do not eat the wood. These types of cheeses are best served in the whole with the top rind peeled back and the glorious goo spooned out. But a wedge of Winnimere can also be delicious but as it is a washed rind cheese, the rind will have a more concentrated flavor. The rind is exposed to multiple washings in a brine solution which may contain some kind of alcohol. The salt and flavor will concentrate on the rind with a specific type of red mold called Bacteria Linens. This type of mold is intentional and gives washed rind cheeses their stinky nature. When you see mold whether it is red, white, or blue ask yourself if it was intentional and if it was give it a taste.
Things can get confusing when a cheese is covered in leaves. Valdeon is a wonderful Spanish blue cheese made from goat’s and cow’s milk with a covering of Sycamore leaves. These leaves make a pretty presentation but are not edible. Once again, this will not kill you but won’t help the flavor. Rogue River Blue is a raw cow’s milk blue made in Oregon that is covered in grape leaves soaked in pear brandy. These leaves are edible and offer a unique flavor and texture to the cheese. If the leaves are dry, I would avoid them but it they have been drenched in some kind of alcohol, I may taste them and then decide if they are worth eating.
Really when it comes down to the rind it is a matter of taste preference. Try the rind first and if you don’t like the taste don’t eat it. But please take the rind with you, I hate seeing a sad slice of brie being hollowed out at a party. It is unattractive and leads others to think that the rind is not edible when they might enjoy the taste. It’s like asking someone else to clean up your mess.
The rind on Soft Ripened cheeses like Brie, Camembert, and Humboldt Fog are edible and made from a white mold which is often penicillium candidum and/or geotrichum candidum. Some inexpensive bries and camembert have a rind that is papery and a paste that is firm. That is not what I look for in brie so I skip them. I love d’Affinois which has a very mild rind which lends body to the very creamy paste. But the rind on a soft ripened cheese can become bitter with age. When that is the case, I may choose to discard the rind. Pierre Robert is an indulgent triple crème from France but I often find the rind too bitter and will scoop out the runny paste.
If a cheese has mold that was not intended and has developed with time you might not have to trash the whole chunk. If you have a chunk of cheddar that has gone a bit moldy, cut off the mold until the paste is pure and enjoy. Do not eat a cheese that has cat fur mold, unintended red mold, or smells like urine. If the cheese is a soft, fresh cheese, or a surface ripened cheese, you might have to let it go as it can be hard to remove unwanted molds from these creamy cheeses.
I hope this provides some rind confidence and remember what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger! And a tip, Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds aren't edible but they can be added to soups, stocks, and stews to add a wonderful salty, cheese flavor.