Let's play free word association. I say "cheese" and what's the first word you think of? For most people it's "stinky." These days, anything other than cheddar or swiss has gotten a reputation for being strange and, shall we say, odoriferous. In my years as a cheesemonger, I've heard everything from fresh goat cheese to camembert to blue cheese described as stinky. So, when asked to write an article about stinky cheese, my first though was "I have to set up some definitions here."
Though there are many cheeses that have a strong odor (I once had a customer return the glorious Camembert de Normandie for stinking up his whole apartment), when I talk about stinky cheeses, I'm talking about one particular style of cheese called "washed-rind." These are cheeses that get a periodic washing during the aging process to encourage the growth of a bacteria called Brevibacterium Linens, or B. Linens for short. The wash is usually a simple brine solution, but sometimes alcohol plays a part, anything from Calvados to Marc. This bacteria is what gives the rind its distinct rusty color and old socks smell. That's no exaggeration either. B. Linens are actually the same bacteria responsible for foot odor.
You might ask why someone would want to eat something that smells like old socks. The first reason is that, of course, they don't taste like that. Instead, they often have very meaty, beefy and complex flavors. There's also a hefty dose of umami (or savoriness), much more than in any other type of cheese.
I often tell customers that the bark is worse than the bite. A strong smell does not always indicate a strong cheese. In fact, one of the most well known washed-rind cheeses, Taleggio, has a distinctly mild flavor. Yes, they can get quite intense, but most are not. Plus, in a food world where words like "barnyardy", "earthy" and "vomity" (yes, cheesemongers have, myself included, been known to use that word) are used, a little bit of "old socks" should be par for the course.
If you are looking to give this variety of cheese a try, I recommend you start with something easy and accessible. There are plenty of folks out there looking for the stinkiest thing in the case, but that's not good introductory material. Taleggio or his water buffalo milk sister, Quadrello, would be a great start. There will be plenty of time to try Epoisses or Vacherin Mont d'or later.
Washed rinds are one type of cheeses where I don't recommend eating the rind. Since it is washed in salt water, the outside can have a creek bed sort of texture and an overwhelming funky flavor. For pairings, I tend to recommend folks "think German." Dark breads, sausages, smoked cured meats, pickles, slightly sweet wines and (my favorite) really hoppy beers. All of these make perfect bedfellows with your newly acquired chunk of cheese.