Braving the stinkiest of the cheeses

The lighter side of Limburger

July 11, 2012

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A few years ago on a trip to Germany, my husband convinced me to get on a train to the town of Limburg and look for people to talk to about Limburger cheese. Limburger has always been the most hilarious of the cheeses, stinky enough to knock down comedians like Abbott and Costello with a single whiff.

But the thing about Limburger, said my husband, who lived in Germany for 20 years and knows a lot of stuff like this, is that it doesn’t have to smell and taste like sweaty gym socks. “In Germany,” he said, “they sell it freshly made when it’s mild and delicious, almost like brie! You could go talk to some farmers or cheese-mongers and do a story on, like, the Lighter Side of Limburger!”

And so I jumped on a train and spent an hour wandering the quaint streets of Limburg, with all my recording equipment at the ready. But something seemed seriously amiss. There were pastry shops and grocers, dress shops, china shops, candle shops, even a French chocolate shop — but no sign, anywhere, of cheese.

How could this be, I wondered? Surely no matter how bad it smells, how off-putting it might be to tourists from less cheese-friendly countries, they couldn’t be hiding all the Limburger cheese in Limburg!

Louisa Chu and GrubStreet Chicago Editor Mike Gebert talked stinky cheese and food worthy of a road trip on Eight Forty-Eight.

Finally I stopped into a boutique whisky shop and asked the owner why I couldn’t find so much as a lump of Limburger cheese in Limburg:

"Because Limburger cheese is not a product from Germany, it’s a product from the Netherlands," the shop owner said. "A lot of people come here, to Limburg in Germany, and want to try some Limburg cheese, and I always have to talk to them. Limburger cheese you only find in the Netherlands, in Limburg—in the other city."

So, having been an entire country off-base, some people might have given up.

But when I spotted a magazine article recently saying that the only town in America where Limburger cheese is produced is just over the Illinois-Wisconsin border, I was SO right there.

Limburger cheese sandwiches are one of the signature menu items at Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe, Wisc. John Rosa has been serving them up for 10 years and personally, he loves the stuff. But he doesn’t try to pretty it up for the customers.

"My guess is that some cheese maker way back just scratched his feet in the middle of the day and got his hands in the vat, and a few months later, the rest is history," Rosa said, adding, "I always like to tell people that after they have a free sample in their mouth—while they’re eating it."

Baumgartner’s makes the same Limburger sandwich that was served by the millions to America’s workingmen a century ago at the peak of its popularity. That’s runny, room temperature Limburger on rye with slices of Bermuda onion. It comes with a choice of brown horseradish mustard or sweet-hot honey mustard, and a breath-cleansing complimentary mint — not, Rosa mutters as I start to chew, that it’s going to do me any good.

"Oo, that’s a bad face," Rosa said. "And that was the mustard side or the sweet-hot side? Well, maybe you’ll like the other side better."

"It’s almost not a taste," I told him. "It’s just this mouthful of, like, pungent gas!"

This is definitely NOT the Lighter Side of Limburger — unless you count all the Limburger jokes that come free with the sandwich.

But if you’re willing to get up at 4 in the morning, when cheese making starts at the Chalet Cheese Co-op just outside town, you can get an earful — and a noseful — from America’s only certified master Limburger-maker himself: Meet Myron Olson, Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker in Brick, Baby Swiss and Limburger.

Olson can show you everything you ever wanted to know about the process: from mixing the rennet into 2,000-gallon vats of milk, to pumping the curds into molds, to the real heart of the action.

You can hear the dripping sound in the background as he takes me into what he calls "Our Limburger Curing Cellar. It’s basically where we put the stink on the Limburger."

I yell out, "OH MY GOODNESS!" and take another deep breath.

"It does have an odor!" Olson said.

"You can smell the Limburger in here!" I tell him.

"When it’s first made it’s a bright white," Olson said. "And what we do in here is, we inoculate them with a bacteria smear-water, the bacteria is a B. linens that grows on the surface."

Incidentally, the bacteria that puts the stink on the Limburger literally IS the same bacteria that causes human body odor and sweaty gym socks. Ironically, it’s not the actual stink but the stigma that handicaps Limburger sales these days.

"People, when they hear of Limburger, they kind of,  'Nah, that’s ok, I’ve heard all the stories about it, I’m not gonna try it.' But if I took my Limburger and put a label on it that said 'St. Michael’s Reserve,' people would say, 'Oh, that sounds different, it’s cave-cured, washed-rind, that sounds good, lemme try it. It stinks, but boy, it tastes good,' " Olson said.

"So have you ever considered doing that?" I asked.

"You know, I did actually at one time, I thought about it," Olson said. "But I don’t have the big marketing that occurs ... for me, it was kind of like: Limburger is what we do, we’ve been doing it a hundred years, we’re gonna stay on Limburger."

So Olson did something else clever with his label: He added a guide for using the sell-by date to find your own Limburger comfort level. If you can’t handle what he calls “Die-hard” — the runny, full-strength way they serve it over at Baumgartner’s — try stage one, when the cheese is only a few weeks old and actually has a very mild, yeasty smell and taste.  That’s what Olson calls “Beginner Limburger.” At stage two, when it’s about two months old, it’s just beginning to stink.

"Now I might wanna have you try a little strawberry jam with that," Olson said. "There you go."

"That’s REALLY good! That’s shocking! But the sweet and the salty…" I said.
 
"And that earthy tone..." Olson said.
 
"That’s really, really good!"

So it turns out that if you want to discover the Lighter Side of Limburger, you don’t have to go off on some wild goose chase to Germany — oh, excuse me, The Netherlands.  Just read the label and dab on a little strawberry jam.

And if you’re feeling brave, go ahead and try it Die-hard. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen?