"Our customers are, on average, about 76 years old," says Myron Olson, "but they will swim a river and climb a mountain to get Limburger cheese."
Olson is the manager of Monroe's Chalet Cheese Co-Op, the only cheesemaker in the United States currently producing the foil-wrapped, aromatic bricks known as Limburger. He was kind enough to lead me through a tour of the place, where approximately 450,000 pounds of Limburger is produced annually.
Describing Limburger cheese to the uninitiated presents a challenging minefield of adjectives. "Pungent" and "aromatic" are the words given by the experts. But even an experienced cheeseman such as Olson veers into less-than-pleasant imagery when describing the Limburger experience.
"I don't want to say barn-y," he says, "but, yeah, it's kind of like a barn-y flavor and smell."
"Some customers say it smells like stinky socks," says Chris Soukup, co-owner of Baumgartner's Cheese House and Tavern in Monroe. Though he sells many unique cheeses, Limburger, he says, is his strongest smelling.
The bacteria used to make Limburger is truly Chalet's own. Following every batch, workers collect bacteria from the aging cheeses and culture it for the next batch. Chalet's particular strain of Limburger bacteria dates back to the opening days of the co-op, in 1885. It makes Wisconsin's distinctive among the world's Limburgers.
Though Wikipedia notes that Brevibacterium linens is the same bacterium responsible for foot odor, Olson says this is misleading. The bacteria was harvested, originally, from the cave floors where the cheese was aged and not, as one might think, directly from a stinky foot.
However nicely it is presented, the very word "Limburger" still seems to elicit that knee-jerk "no thanks" from the general public. This reaction comes despite Limburger's unique place in Wisconsin, and its cost-effective health value.
"Limburger was considered the probiotic of its day," says Olson of the high-protein, "workingman's" cheese. Imagine Jamie Lee Curtis hawking a hearty slab on rye, with a beer, to keep you regular.
Soukup says more and more people are trying Limburger at Baumgartner's, which he attributes to the ever-growing foodie culture in the country. Soukup isn't one of them, though - he says he tried to develop a taste for it but couldn't. "My wife loves it, though." He does recommend everyone try it at least once.
Maybe retro-recession culture will reestablish Limburger. As politicians work to get us back into the business of iron mining and manufacturing, the state (and the nation) will need a cost-effective protein source that pairs well with a lunchtime beer and a hard life.
And as the nation calls for it, there will be only one place that makes it.
Limburger is a rapidly evolving cheese with a short shelf life. To know you're really eating Limburger:
- Make sure it is aged at least five months, but no longer than six. For the first four months, it tastes more like bland feta. Creaminess and flavor develop as the bacteria works its way from the outside toward the center. If it's not creamy all the way through, you're not getting the proper Limburger experience.
- The key to Limburger is its presentation. Recipes using Limburger aren't too common. There is, for the most part, only the Limburger sandwich. You make it with rye bread, large onion slices and brown mustard. Pair it with a good craft beer.
- Of course, the key to any food experience is to make it your own. Chris Soukup says his wife prefers to accompany her sandwich with a rum and Coke. Myron Olson offered me a taste of Limburger with a touch of strawberry jelly. It's served this way by his wife at parties, he says, and the sweetness often masks the off-putting pungency of the cheese.
Baumgartner's 1023 16th Ave., Monroe, 608-325-6157
Chalet Cheese Co-Op N4858 County Hwy. N, Monroe, 608-325-4343