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.
Never content to merely copy their old-world European cousins, Wisconsin cheesemakers are increasingly crafting more styles of stinky cheeses, expanding what was once a fairly small classification into its own American Originals category. With more washed rind cheeses than ever on the market, now seems to be the perfect time to take stock of stinky cheese. Ranked in order of “stinkiness” with the most pungent listed as No. 1, here’s my list of the nine stinkiest, washed-rind cheeses crafted in Wisconsin today.
9. Valfino: Emmi-Roth USA, Monroe
A creamy, runny, mildly stinky cheese similar to the Italian Tallegio, Valfino sports flavor profiles of beefiness, earthiness and a hint of spice and fruit. Made by Emmi-Roth USA in Monroe, it won first place at the 2009 American Cheese Society competition, despite originally being made by mistake. Back in 2007, the company’s cheesemakers were working on a higher moisture alpine cheese when something went wrong. Pleased with the result, however, Emmi-Roth sent the “mistake cheese” to the customer, who went wild and ordered more. It took two years to duplicate. Today, Valfino is known as one of the best mistakes Emmi-Roth USA ever made.
8. Petit Frere: Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo
Cheesemaker George Crave created this rich, washed-rind cheese to reflect his family’s Irish-French heritage. Made in small batches, ladled into draining molds and then washed daily, the cheese carries an earthy, fruity flavor and velvety texture. Sold in a wooden box, it’s perfect for a cheese course. Add a bottle of wine and poof! Instant party.
7. St. Pauline: Capri Cheesery, Blue River
This mixed milk, washed-rind cheese is crafted by cheesemaker Felix Thalhammer using a combination of goat’s and cow’s milk. A firm, raw milk cheese, it is an American Original best described as a cross between a gouda and havarti. Cured on cedar boards for at least three months, St. Pauline is made in small batches using traditional artisan techniques, with milk supplied from Amish dairy farms in the Sparta, Tomah and Elroy areas.
6. Liederkranz: DCI Cheese, Monroe
In 2010, following a 25-year hiatus, a Wisconsin company reintroduced Liederkranz, first made famous by a New York cheesemaker in the 1800s. DCI Cheese in Richfield partners with Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe to make this surface-ripened stinky cheese, made subtly different than Limburger through the use of a distinct bacterial culture for ripening. It has the same texture and unique aroma as Limburger, but Liederkranz boasts a distinctively robust and buttery flavor. It’s made in small, rectangular blocks and features a moist, edible, golden yellow crust with a pale ivory interior and a heavy, honeylike consistency.
5. St. Jeanne: Union Star, Fremont
Young cheesemaker Jon Metzig is crafting a new semi-soft, washed rind cheese called St. Jeanne, named for his grandmother. Similar to a Port Salut or Irish Gubbeen, the cheese is a result of Jon’s travels in 2009 through Ireland, England and Switzerland, where he apprenticed with different cheesemakers, learning the old-world art of washed-rind cheese. Today, Jon crafts the squareshaped St. Jeanne at the family cheese plant near Fremont, and ages it for six weeks. He’s considering washing future batches with beer, and aging it longer, resulting in a heartier, stinkier cheese. If so, Jon could be responsible for a whole new generation converting to stinky cheese. This is a cheese worth watching at future cheese competitions.
4. Brau Käse: Emmi-Roth USA, Monroe
The great cheeses of Germany serve as creative inspiration for Emmi-Roth USA’s line of Landhaus cheeses, making Brau Käse the poster child for American-made stinky cheeses. The company’s cellar masters gently coat it with brewer’s yeast to impart an earthy flavor, creating a creamy interior perfectly balanced with a slightly assertive rind. Ahh…just the right amount of stinky and sticky.
3. Aged Brick: Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa
Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer makes his surface-ripened Aged Brick by hand, filling each cheese form with curd and weighting it down with the same bricks his grandfather used. After resting in a brine bath, the cheeses are aged on wooden shelves and handwashed daily. Widmer’s Cheese Plant, first purchased by the Swiss immigrant John O. Widmer in 1922, has been home to three generations of Widmer cheesemakers. Like his father before him, Joe grew up in the rooms above the plant and raised his own children there. He says very little has changed in the 80-plus years his family has been making cheese, and his son, Joe Jr., is considering joining the family business as the next generation cheesemaker. That’s good news for us stinky-cheese fans.
2. Earth Schmier: Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds
Rock star cheesemaker Willi Lehner makes this washed rind Havarti-based cheese about twice a year and sells it at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison. His customers can smell it before they see it, and it never lasts long. Earth Schmier is made from milk that Lehner inoculates with microbes harvested from his property in the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin. Made using raw milk, it is aged 60 days and boasts a complex, earthy and rustic flavor.
1. Limburger: Chalet Cheese Cooperative, Monroe
The last of all U.S. cheesemakers crafting the granddaddy of stinky cheeses is Master Cheesemaker Myron Olson at Chalet. This pungent smelling, surface-ripened cheese is often compared to the odor of stinky feet, but once it reaches the palette, it pairs exceptionally well with hearty rye breads and a slice of onion.
So take your time, work through the list, and discover some of your own favorites along the way. At the rate our Wisconsin cheesemakers are inventing new cheeses, there’s no doubt at least one new washed rind cheese will be on the market in 2011. We Wisconsinites love our stinky cheese, and our cheesemakers know how to deliver.