“It takes time, but it grows on you,” Olson says wryly, of the pungent, ammonia-like stench wafting through the plant, where huge vats of steaming curds eventually become blocks of Limburger. Employees then rub the fresh blocks by hand on aged pine boards coated in the prized 100-year-old bacteria that is recycled daily to ensure the flavor stays true. Visitors can’t tour the plant but there is a small store.
The washed-rind cheese, made from cow’s milk, was first concocted by 19th century monks in the Duchy of Limburg, an area now divided among Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Later in New York, Limburger sandwiches became a favorite working man’s lunch, cheap and nutritious and usually washed down with a glass of beer. Prohibition hurt sales of the smelly cheese as much as sales of beer and production of Limburger dwindled. The Monroe cooperative now makes about 700,000 pounds (317,514 kilograms) a year.
Olson, the master cheesemaker, introduces a visitor to the cheese gently. He offers a small piece of week-old Limburger on a cracker with strawberry jam. It’s mild and crumbly, the texture of feta. At two months, it’s rich and creamy, resembling brie. At six months, after fermentation has kicked in, it assaults the senses with an odor so overpowering that to compare it to smelly feet seems too kind. (In 2006 a study showing that the malaria mosquito is attracted equally to the smell of Limburger and to the smell of human feet won a prize called the Ig Nobel, a parody of the Nobel prize, awarded for humor as much as science.)
Aficionados praise Limburger’s earthy muskiness and creamy texture.
“Limburger is a cheese lover’s cheese,” says Tony Zgraggen, who sells 8-ounce (227 grams) blocks of the stuff for $4.99 at the Alp and Dell, a wonderful artisanal cheese store in Monroe next to the Emmi Roth Kase cheese plant, which produces 38,000 pounds (17,236 kilograms) of cheese — Gruyere, baby Swiss, blue and havarti — a day.