I have a hard time turning down free trips so when the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board offered to take to take me and another Rainbow worker to Wisconsin to tour some dairies, I said yes right away. Meeting with ten cheesemakers in three days… no problem.
I agreed before knowing who we were going with and it turned out we were add-ons to a tour already scheduled for a local chain of supermarkets: Lunardi’s. What a pleasure it was to travel with a down to earth group of people instead the snobs we could have been paired with! In fact, the first question more than one asked me was, “So, is Rainbow union?”* This wasn’t going to be an elitist who-cares-about-the-labor-conditions-if-we-get-fancy-food group. In fact the Lunardi’s folks were almost all 40-50 year old union women, one of my favorite subcultures.
The first stop on our trip was the Chalet Cheese Co-op, the only maker of Limburger left in the United states.
They have a master cheesemaker** and a small old-school cheese factory set up: a rabbit warren of rooms and an unpretentious atmosphere. While they also make baby Swiss and a few other things, the Limburger is their well-deserved claim to fame. It’s no joke that Limburger is a strong smelly cheese, but only when aged long enough. We did a vertical tasting and only the oldest was the type of cheese that some people would fear.
To make limburger, you take an otherwise innocent square of cheese curds and smear it with salt water and bacteria. This bacterial action makes the rind pink and sticky and the cheese pungent and, stinky.
Limburger is all about the bacteria, in fact they use the same wood boards to age the cheese they have been using for generations. The better to grow good cheese-loving bugs with!
This is the only Limburger plant around, but there are other similar cheeses available, I might as well put in a plug here for – in my opinion – the most underrated cheese in the country, Marin French Cheese Company’s Schloss. I would be hard-pressed to tell you the difference between Schloss and Limburger, they are both smear-ripened cheeses that are mild and uninteresting at a young age, then the most intense cheese around when aged to the “expiration date”.
When eating these cheeses, go native. Wait til you hit the “expiration date” then eat at least a half inch of stinky spreaded cheese on dark bread, with mustard, onions, and beer. Limburger deserves your full commitment.
*We are not union but rather a democratically-run cooperative. When I respond with that answer it’s usually met by union folks with an unsure “ok” then when we’ve built a little trust, we talk operational details.
**Wisconsin is the only state in the nation to require licenses for cheesemakers but also have a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certification program. After 10 years of making a particular type of cheese, a Wisconsin cheesemaker can take a series of biochemistry and food science programs and take a test. Very prestigious.