In 1606, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio stabbed a man to death in a brawl over a tennis match, or possibly a woman. He fled Rome and escaped to Malta, where he became a wealthy knight and built upon his already-widespread fame as a painter, popularizing the use of tenebrism in Baroque painting. Despite his success, he repeatedly found himself in trouble with the Italian law and carried the Rome murder with him until his premature death.
We recently tried a cheese that shares the origin, name, and formidable temperament of the artist Caravaggio. At Eddie's in Charles Village we found ourselves cozying up to a cushiony wedge of Taleggio Caravaggio ($13.99 per pound), a washed-rind cow cheese hailing from the painter's namesake hometown in Lombardy. Taleggio is one of the world's oldest soft cheeses, named for the caves in the Val Taleggio valley. Sticky yellow cream bursts from the gritty orange crust like an illuminated figure emerging from darkness in a Caravaggio painting, or like suffocated flesh bulging over the waistband of a pair of tight pants. It's as forkable as it is spreadable. If you must serve it on some kind of edible vessel, stick to mild, unsalted bread. It's the Italian way, after all.
Now here's the thing about Taleggio: It smells, literally, like shit (in all likelihood, the painter Caravaggio probably smelled like shit too). Whereas many malodorous cheeses smell like buckets of sweat, this smells like tubs of fecal matter. Why the cheese deities decided the best food should smell so terrible, we do not know. Just pinch your nose while you eat, and serve it in a well-ventilated room with more pleasantly fragrant food.
The rind doesn't taste like one would expect, perhaps like a soft bread crust. It's more like a briny, bitter gravel, like the cheese was rolled in beach sand. This might not appeal to most—even we had trouble working through it—but the cream interior is the dairy manifestation of comfort food. With its pleasantly smooth, gooey body and conversely daunting crust, this particular Taleggio will at once seduce and slay. Filled with notes of mushrooms and flowers, the almost overwhelmingly salty cream evokes sensations of a bathing in a bay after rolling in warm mud, or stabbing someone with a sword because you don't like their face and a tennis match didn't go your way.