S.O.L.! (Save Our Limburger)

limburger
I find that some of the words people use to describe wine are…well…pretty awful, don’t you think? Gregory Dal Piaz gives a great list in the Huffington Post of exactly the words I mean. The word ‘rustic’ is another good example and isn’t limited to descriptions of wine alone. I’ve often heard it in relation to cheese and wondered: besides indicating a rough or handmade looking appearance, what the hell does ‘rustic’ taste like?

I learned the answer one night a couple of Decembers ago when attending an ‘Evening of Cheese’ at Borough Market with my friend Gwynedd. We were sort of shopping for holiday booty but mostly just gorging ourselves on samples, elbowing yuppies out of the way to get our nibbles of Compte and Thom, and along the way came across one very special wheel of cheese. I’m so sorry that I don’t remember the type, only that the maker was English and it had a very soft, custard-like texture. We were warned before trying it that it was not for the feint of heart, and the word ‘rustic’ was emphasised. It was described more like ‘RUSTIC!

‘Pish,’ Gwynedd and I exclaimed and dived in.

Now, let me take you to a field. A pasture, to be exact. Your eyes are closed, the breeze is blowing through your hair, you can feel the warm afternoon sun on your back. Open your mouth. A morsel of cow dung is placed on your tongue—you chew, and it wraps around the inside of your mouth, coating your teeth and tongue. It burns the back of your throat and makes your eyes water, filling your nose with noxious fumes. The taste is aggressive, overwhelming, and it’s like…grass…dirt…and shit.

That’s ‘RUSTIC!’ As terrible as it sounds, and as much as I wouldn’t want to sit down with a wheel of' ‘RUSTIC!’ on a regular basis, I don’t want to give the impression that ‘rustic’ is in and of itself a bad thing. In smaller doses, it’s kind of nice. It’s a clear taste, distinctive, like driving through fertile farmland while you happen to have a piece of cheese in your mouth.

Last week, I acquired a block of Limburger cheese while visiting the town of Monroe in Green County, Wisconsin. I had never tried it before—in fact, all I’ve ever known about Limburger I learned in ‘The Invalid’s Story’ by Mark Twain, which is about some folks on a train who mistake a chunk of cheese for a rotting corpse. I could only assume it was pretty stinky stuff.

And yes, it’s a little stinky, but no more so than many of the amazing washed rind cheeses that can be found all over Europe, like Hand, Livarot, Mainz, or Maroilles. ‘Washed rind’ refers to the process of scrubbing down the outside of the cheese every day while it ages. This causes particular types of bacteria to flourish, forming a stinky rind which protects the interior of the cheese.

Limburger is the colour and consistency of butter, with a soft golden skin at the edge. It tastes sweet, creamy, and nutty at first, and then gives way to a ‘rustic’ earthiness. It kind of reminds me of a stronger version of Le Rustique Camembert. This is a good thing.

old-cheese-factory-bw
In Monroe, I visited the Historical Center for Cheese making (oh yes, such a place exists!), where I met Ivan Franklin, a third-generation Swiss-American cheese maker who described the traditional process of artisan cheese making as he had grown up doing it. He told me that in 1920, there were nearly 200 cheese factories in Monroe, making three types of cheese: Swiss, Limburger, and Brick. Today, only about 10 factories remain, but together they make more cheese than Monroe ever did in 1920, including every type the market demands from all around the world.

Sadly, the production of Limburger has declined dramatically. Only one factory in the US still makes the stuff: Country Castle in Monroe. Ivan says that interest in it is slowly dying out because the younger generations don’t like the taste of strong cheeses anymore. I have to admit, it does sound like the sort of thing my grandmother would have kept around the house.

I think it’s too bad: here we have a little chunk of Swiss-American history, an artisan product that is excellent and not far off from some of the specialty European cheeses that many of us pay big bucks for, but it’s disappearing because it sounds like something Great Aunt Matilda would eat. I say, let’s all embrace our inner grandmother and enjoy the Limburger in all its rustic, stinky glory.

Classic Limburger Cheese Sandwich

Two slices of thick rye bread
Brown Mustard
White onion, sliced
Limburger cheese

Spread mustard on one slice of bread, and a thick layer of Limburger on the other. Top the cheese with a 1/4 inch slice of onion, and sandwich all together. You may want to get a breath mint ready…

The trendy Amish

chicken-noodle-soup

I am an experience junkie. There, I said it, I feel better for having gotten that off my chest. I have ridden motorcycles through Vietnam, jumped out of airplanes, navigated the streets of Moscow alone, and eaten unknown substances like Korean mudfish, just to have done it. I’m obviously no Anthony Bourdain, but I do my best.

So when I found myself eye to eye with an Amish waitress at Boyd and Wurthmann in Berlin, Ohio, I couldn’t help feeling some amount of curiosity about her lifestyle. Has she ever canoed drunkenly down a river full of alligators? Has she ever touched a shark in a Tahitian lagoon? For that matter, has she ever been to college or even left Ohio?

While I sat speculating, the waitress placed our lunches on the counter: a bowl of chicken noodle soup for me, swimming with big chunks of tender breast meat, carrots and celery with just enough bite, and thin egg noodles in a deeply flavored stock. A large hunk of local swiss cheese sat on the side. Mr. ordered a roast beef sandwich, which turned out to contain a fist full of slow-braised meat that melted in our mouths without any need for chewing, and a side of hand-cut potato wedges with tangier-than-commercial house sour cream. No wonder the place is packed.

Boyd-and-Wurthmann

Plenty of times I’ve gone for ‘home cooking’ in a diner only to find the food has obviously been trucked in by Sysco, frozen, canned, certainly NOT made from scratch. Boyd & Wurthmann is the real deal, the thing you really want when you pay a restaurant to serve you up some comfort food.

We devoured our lunch, topped it off with pecan pie (him) and raspberry cream pie (me) and then wandered out into Holmes county on a sugar high. The car was slowed by horses and buggies carrying locals, as we passed homesteads containing neat rows of crops, community-raised barns, and houses big enough to hold several generations.

A stop at Lehman’s Store revealed a wonderland of cheesemaking supplies, ingenious electricity-free machines, locally crafted furniture, and highest quality pottery and kitchen ware. This is what a store should be—actual hand-made goods sold for a price that fairly reflects the work and resources that went into them. It’s a far cry from the mass production and artificially low pricing we have come to expect.

roast-beef-sandwich

Then it occurs to me: isn’t this it? Community, craft, whole foods, simple living—aren’t these the trendy ideals that we aspire to in our alienated modern lives? Here are people (and let’s face it, far from what most of us would consider to be ‘cool’), who have been living these ideals for generations. Setting aside religious beliefs, the Amish are starting to look more interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to convert. I understand that while it’s easy to give lip service to a wholesome lifestyle, an agricultural existence represents an awful lot of hard work, the kind I’ve never experienced. It must also be incredibly difficult to live with such an outward expression of your difference from the rest of the world. Perhaps not so much as a small child when you don’t know any other way or as an adult when you have made your own choices in life, but as a young person it must take some coming to terms with.

Even still, over the course of a day I start to look at the anachronisms around me and I feel…envy. Maybe the waitress hasn’t travelled as much as I have, but she has something in this community that I lack. Everything is a trade-off, but it’s still worth recognising greatness when you see it. Here in Berlin, it’s in a bowl of ordinary chicken noodle soup.

Chicken Noodle Soup

2 boneless chicken breasts
2 pints chicken stock
1 T olive oil
1 medium carrot, diced
1 rib of celery, diced
80 g linguine pasta or flat egg noodles
salt and pepper

Poach the chicken in the stock for 15-20 minutes or until just cooked through, then remove the chicken to a cutting board and cut into 1/2 inch chunks. In a separate saucepan, heat the oil and saute the vegetables for 2-3 minutes. Add the chicken stock to this pan, and bring to a boil. Throw in the pasta and allow to cook for about 5 minutes, then add in the chicken, salt and pepper to taste, and you’re done. Simple stuff.

The Big Apples

New-York-orchard

Driving west from the Adirondack National Forest, we’ve spent the last few days slowly pecking our way across the south shore of Lake Ontario towards retro honeymoon paradise in Niagara Falls. This is not the New York you think of. This is not 24-hour-beauty-salons-, steaming-manhole-covers-, brunch-everyday-, young beautiful-things-partying-on-the-roof-terraces-of-their-Tribeca-highrises-New York, this is the other one. Sleepy mountain hamlets, retiree dream houses on the edges of postcard-perfect lakes, all but abandoned industrial towns, crumbling trailer parks on roads to and from nowhere. It’s a big state.

Eager to start sampling the local foods on offer—the stuff you just can’t get anywhere else—I’ve been watching the roadside like a hawk. We’ve gone through hours-long stretches of back roads, passing nothing but forest, houses, the occasional roadkill and a touch of fast food. Not exactly what I had in mind. Finally we passed through Rochester and on the other side, still heading ever West, we started to see lovely tidy rows of apple trees making order out of the countryside.

Yes! Something local! Ok, so it isn’t something that I can’t find anywhere else, but I still started to salivate over the thought of biting into a crisp autumnal red delicious straight from the picking.

apple-standWe stopped at Sanger’s Farm store in Youngstown. The place was bursting with baskets of enormous fruit, and smelled like the inside of Grandma’s oven. Well, not my Grandma of course, but someone’s. Over the soft banter of Jamaican migrant workers sorting through the bounty, my honey and I made our choice—a $2 basket of Fujis in mottled red and yellow, and a cheeky mini walnut pie for extra good measure. Saveur’s Anna Stockwell would have been proud.

A couple of hours down the road, mini pie long gone, we stopped by a lake for lunch and began with an hors d’oeuvre of fresh, cold, crunchy apple. Perfect. Not mealy, not soft, just enough sweetness but not overdoing it—a good apple is a master of understated quality. I relished the unadulterated goodness of it, and then made a beeline for the campsite to experiment.

Now, the Mr. can be a real pain-in-the-you-know-what about eating anything to do with cooked apples, so I met with some resistance to my ideas of cobblers, crumbles, crisps, and the like. Instead I opted for a little savoury-sweet trick, and whipped up some apple and cheddar biscuits.

Wary of my track record with the camp oven, I moved some coals away from the main portion of the fire in order to keep a more comfortable cooking temperature. We made use of technology, and inserted an electronic probe thermometer into the oven, heaping the coals on until it reached around 325F. 20 minutes on, and eureka! I have successfully baked biscuits out in the woods. Mr. Stephfret downed the lot and pretended the I-hate-cooked-apples conversation never happened.

apple-cheddar-biscuits

Apple Cheddar biscuits

2 cups all purpose flour

1 T baking powder

generous pinch of salt

1/2 cup butter

2 handfuls of grated cheddar cheese

1 medium apple, cored, peeled, and finely diced

1/2 cup milk

Mix flour, baking powder, and salt together with a fork. Work the butter into the flour mixture with the tips of your fingers until the texture resembles breadcrumbs, then mix in the cheese and apples. Pour in some but not all of the milk, and mix with your hands until the dough holds together, no more. Add a little more milk if you need to, but stop once you have a moist dough. Pinch off handfuls of dough and form into 2 1/2 inch discs. Place in a greased baking dish in a 325F oven for about 20 minutes, or until cooked through and golden.