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.
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
White onion, sliced
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…