The Return of Stinky Cheese
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Becca Dilley 2
It’s suddenly hip to be stinky. Ask any four-star chef, food editor or overpaid publicist tasked with writing a Top 10 list, and all will tell you the same thing: America is officially in love with “washed-rind” cheeses. From classic Limburger, to Wisconsin’s own Aged Brick, to the rebirth of Liederkranz, stinky cheese is the new black.
Synonymous with smelly, a good washed rind cheese is easy to spot— or more accurately, to sniff—from at least a dozen yards away. Almost always wet, even sticky, and emitting an eye-watering aroma, washed rind cheeses are common in cheese shops, restaurants and kitchen counters around Wisconsin. That’s because, outside of Europe, our cheesemakers are about the only folks left still perfecting the first-generation classics like Limburger, and quite often, crafting a second generation of American Original washed rind beauties, such as St. Jeanne.
If you’re from Wisconsin—and even if you’ve never eaten a Limburger sandwich in your life—chances are your grandparents or parents grew up on the stuff. Old-timers kept a chunk of it in a sealed, quart-size jar on the counter and packed Limburger sandwiches every day for lunch. Because many of the folks who immigrated to southern Wisconsin came from the region where Limburger originated (modern-day Netherlands, Belgium and Germany), they brought their cheese with them. By 1930, more than 100 cheese plants in Green County were crafting Limburger. Today, only one cheese factory in the nation still makes Limburger: Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Green County, near Monroe.
Not only are Wisconsin cheesemakers the only ones making stinky cheese, up until recently, we Wisconsinites appeared to be the only ones who knew how to eat it. While big-city chefs are just discovering stinky cheese, every short-order cook and bartender in southern Wisconsin has known for eons that a Limburger sandwich should be served on rye with a bit of raw onion and mustard. That’s because, as usual, America’s Dairyland is ahead of the curve when it comes to all things dairy. The pundits may say stinky cheeses are back, but we know they never left.
While Limburger may be the best known member in the family of stinky cheeses, many others compete with its flavor and odor, and several of them originated in Wisconsin. Aged Brick, for example, was first made by John Jossi in Dodge County around 1877. With a lower moisture content, Aged Brick sports a different texture and is firmer and more elastic than Limburger. Its name is thought to derive from the bricks used to press the whey out of the unripened cheese. Old-style brick— such as the style made by third-generation cheesemaker Joe Widmer in Theresa—is cream-colored and perforated by small holes. The rind is strong and bitter, much more bitter than the cheese, and should be removed before eating. People who like strong cheeses but draw the line at Limburger will find Aged Brick more within their range.