Cheese 145 Luscious Limburger-a Much Maligned Beauty

My step dad’s parents were great lovers of Limburger in his childhood. One parent or the other would stop-at any point in the day- and inquire, “want one?” If the other agreed, then a sandwich would be created. A specific sandwich: dark rye bread, thick slices of onion, brown mustard and smeared slabs of Limburger. These sandwiches were eaten wordlessly by his parents, but with great enjoyment. To my step dad, this was,  perhaps, the most vile concoction ever created. He never did sample this infamous sandwich, but his parents remained devoted to the Limburger sandwich all of their days. I have known this story for years, and thought it was original to his family. In researching this blog post, I discovered I was wrong. This was in fact, a famous sandwich! The Limburger Sandwich,  one connected with and enjoyed by working class folks around the world for over 130 years.

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Limburger is perhaps the most infamous of all cheeses for its stench. So let’s unpack that now, shall we?  That “something died in my toes 3 months ago” smell  of Limburger, is actually caused by a unique bacteria. Limburger is a washed rind cheese, and this bacterium is applied several times during the ripening. It functions to decompose the cheese, and by doing so it transforms the cheese in a few months time from a fresh curd- similar to feta- into  a stinky one that eventually smells a little like pee. This bacteria, Brevibacterium linens, is-in fact, the very same one found on human skin. Brevibacterium linens is also partly responsible for body and foot odour, so that familiar smell is no coincidence. It really does stink like feet, and armpits, and……

Originally made in the Belgian area of Limbourg-hence the name, Limburger is widely made and enjoyed in Germany as well. Limburger accompanied German and Belgian immigrants to America in the late 19th century. It was a taste of the old country and a nostalgic food that connected them to a home they had lost.  Limburger  was closely related and associated with these new immigrants, and jokes about the cheese and about the immigrants went hand in hand.  Vaudeville comedians called it the “cheese you can find in the dark.” The new world hybrid dialect of English, German and  Dutch was called “Limburger English.”  Limburger symbolized the lower class and also comedy. These new immigrants, they were so funny! They couldn’t speak correctly, and they ate weird cheese! Limburger and new immigrants were often maligned. In fact, in 1902, the Louisville, Kentucky’s health officer, Dr. M.K. Allen, banned Limburger and promised to prosecute any and all Limburger dealers. Determining that its bacteria made it “unwholesome.”

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As if that wasn’t enough, then Prohibition came, and virtually brought an end to Limburger. It was traditionally a pub cheese, served in a sandwich with beer, and when the taverns closed, there was such Limburger excess that it had to be fed to the hogs! (Lucky pigs.) Really, the story of Limburger is the story of the North American palate. As our appetite for cheese in North America has become more sanitized, our taste for Limburger has plummeted. That along with a century of jokes and insults make it no wonder that poor old Limburger is hard to find these days. Once the great cheese of the working man, Limburger has been relegated to the back of the cheese case.

My sample of Limburger is from the St. Mang company, in Germany. It’s made from pasteurized milk, and is in a pretty red foil package. When I peel back the wrap, I smell an ever so pleasant odour of feet, and perhaps just a little crotch-I shall admit that here, but it was simply charming! It’s no worse than a Taleggio or an Oka, and it is nowhere as gnarly as an Epoisses or a Stinking Bishop. I don’t know what all the fuss is about!  This is hardly the stinkiest cheese I have smelled, it’s just one of the many washed rind cheeses that use bacterium linens, and when you have bacterium linens, my friends, you have body odour. That’s just the way it is.

My Limburger is sticky and slightly orange and brown on the outside rind. It’s a rectangular cheese with a pattern of the cheese mould slightly imprinted. My cheese is “best before” 2 days from now, so I know it’s just perfect. It’s ready to smear on some rye bread with onions, which, alas, I do not possess. What a shame! Yes, this cheese does reek, let me be clear, but why is reeking such a bad thing? Why do we have to pretend we live in a world where yummy things don’t stink? I refuse, I embrace the reek.

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Here goes…

Mmmm. It’s like meat, and cheese, and asparagus, and salt, and arm pit, and shoes all rolled into one. Actually, it’s freaking great. It’s relatively mild…relatively…yes, the rind is more intense in flavour compared to the much milder interior paste, but the interior is just cheesy goodness. The rind is giving me wafts of uric acid (that means pee, by the way) and ammonia, but I really dig it. I really dig it! Did I mention I dig this? Holy Hannah, this cheese is really great, one million immigrants couldn’t be wrong. Go out and get some, pick up some rye bread, onions and brown mustard and get connected to your roots. Limburger, you are a keeper!