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  The Strong Cheese Survives
From Wisconsin's Hometown Flavors, by Terese Allen (Trails Media, 2nd edition, 2003)

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The last Limburger-producing cheese factory in the United States, the Chalet Cheese Co-op, is a quaint, Alpine-looking building that lies on a rise of a dipping country road outside Monroe. This is the heart of Swiss cheese country, where in the 1920s area factories produced millions of pounds of limburger a year; indeed, according to author Jerry Apps in Cheese: The Making of a Wisconsin Tradition (Amherst Press, 1997), they once produced more Limburger
than Swiss. 

Huh? Limburger was once more popular than Swiss? How did we get from there to just one little Limburger factory?

Limburger, like liver and lutefisk, is a food people either love or love to hate. Stories that surround the famously stinky cheese are legend: about the grocer who repeatedly sent back smelly shipments, thinking the cheese had spoiled; about a "Limburger Rebellion" in Green County, when residents threatened to stage a Boston Tea Party over a cheese caravan parked in the sun; and about the Iowa mail carrier who claimed he got sick from the odor of a package he was to deliver, sparking an interstate debate over the worthiness of Limburger (it ended in a "sniffing duel" that left Limburger victorious on all counts).

Limburger originated in Belgium but is usually associated with the Germans and Swiss, who layer the aged, surface-ripened cheese with dark bread, onions, and horseradish or mustard in a hearty sandwich. A Swiss immigrant named Rudolph Benkert cured the first Green County Limburger in his home cellar in 1867. The following year Nicholas Gerber, another Swiss immigrant, established the first Limburger factory in the area. Taverns all over the county were soon serving the potent cheese with locally-brewed beer, a combination patrons relished so much that when saloons closed during Prohibition, Limburger sales went into decline. 

These days, it isn't a lack of beer that holds Limburger production back, it's changing tastes. Most people prefer the mild cheeses that are more typical of today's streamlined cheese production. But even though we are down to one Limburger factory there are still enough Limburger lovers to consume close to one million pounds a year, the amount the Chalet Cheese produces annually.

And the cooperative is still making Limburger the old-fashioned, labor-intensive way. "Each piece of cheese is handled 12 times before it leaves the factory," says Myron Olson, a big, round-faced man with a respect for Limburger that shows in the bright gaze of his eyes. He is manager of the cooperative, following in the footsteps of the renowned Albert Deppeler, who made Limburger and managed the factory for decades before him. The Limburger-making process Myron describes sounds much like other cheeses, at least in the first stages: special cultures and rennet are added to whole milk, which when thickened is cut with wire knives, stirred and heated to release the liquid whey, pumped into forms, and drained to release more whey.

But then things begin to look different: the cheese is cut into pieces, rolled in salt, and returned to the frames for a brief dry-brining. Soon the individual pieces, which are the size and shape of small bricks, are laid side by side on knot-free pine boards that have been cured specially for this purpose. "You want the bacteria to grow on the boards," says Myron. "This inoculates the cheese and protects it from other bacteria that could grow." 

Placed in a cool, ultra-moist cellar, the bricks are wetted daily and brushed with a bacteria- infused solution (called the "smear") twice during their seven-day stay. Eventually the cheese is weighed out and hand-wrapped in parchment and waxed paper. Country Castle, the Chalet Cheese label, goes on about 20% of the Limburger; the rest is sold wholesale under other labels.

Olson emphasizes the importance of the wooden boards by describing what happened in 1947 when the cooperative, in a joint venture with Kraft Foods, built the current plant and installed new equipment, boards and all. "They wanted to become the most modern, the best Limburger factory in the world," says Myron. "But what happened was they got green cheese---it failed. They had to get out the old boards. And these have been used ever since." Since Chalet Cheese is the source for all domestic Limburger sold in the nation, consumers shouldn't find variations from label to label. Except, that is, for the variations that should occur through aging.

"The key to enjoying Limburger is knowing the date it was made," notes Myron. "When it is real young, up to one month old, it is very firm, crumbly, and salty, much like feta cheese in taste. At six weeks, it's soft on the corners but still has a hard core that's salty and chalky. The bacteria works from rind to center. At two months, the core is almost gone." He says most people prefer Limburger between six weeks and eight weeks old. "From two to three months, the core is gone, it's soft and spreadable, the salt has blended in, and the cheese has a kind of sweet flavor. Older than three months, there's intense smell, intense flavor. It's pungent and almost bitter. If you like it, you're a real Limburger lover."

If you like it, you may be an old-timer who has enjoyed Limburger all your life, or you may be one of a new breed of gourmet diners that Myron calls "adventure eaters." Either way, you're one of the relatively few consumers today who are helping a strong cheese survive.

Limburger Sandwich Recipe
"Limburger is a table cheese. While you can include in any meal (at breakfast with toast, in a sandwich for lunch, with potatoes for dinner), you won't often find it listed as an ingredient in recipes." classicwisconsin knows anything is possible.

Sample this Limburger Sandwich Recipe.

Terese Allen
Terese Allen, food columnist for Wisconsin Trails magazine and Madison's Isthmus newspaper, is a cooking teacher and former chef whose passion is seasonal cooking and regional foodways.

Visit her Web site, Taste of Wisconsin.


Limburger Sandwich Recipe
"Limburger is a table cheese. While you can include in any meal
(at breakfast with toast, in a sandwich for lunch, with potatoes for dinner), you won't often find it listed as an ingredient in recipes." classicwisconsin knows anything is possible.

Sample this Limburger Sandwich Recipe.



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