Monday, February 06, 2006

Profiles in Cheesemaking: Myron Olson, Chalet Cheese Cooperative

For some cheesemakers, the love of the trade has much to do with the opportunity to be innovative, to create new varieties that they can call their very own signature cheeses. For Myron Olson, general manager at Chalet Cheese Coop, a small, alpine-style factory in the hills of southwest Wisconsin, the love of the craft is all about tradition and a fervent belief that, for some things, the old ways are best and must be preserved.

Olson, one of the elite corps of Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, has made his mark by championing a cheese not likely to win any popularity contests or grab the spotlight on fashionable restaurant menus. It’s smelly, it’s misunderstood and, according to Olson, it’s a cheese for which you almost need a mentor. It’s Limburger, and, as America’s last traditional Limburger maker, Olson happily fills the mentor role for anyone who will listen, taste and give Limburger a chance.

A surface-ripened cheese that originated in Belgium, Limburger is made at Chalet the old-fashioned, labor-intensive way—as it has been for more than 60 years. Once formed, the individual pieces of cheese, which are the shape and size of small bricks, are laid side-by-side on specially cured pine boards. “You want the bacteria to grow on the boards. It inoculates the cheese and protects it from other bacteria that could grow,” Olson says.

Held in a cool, very moist cellar the little white bricks are hand washed with a B-linen bacterial solution called a “smear” and turned twice over a seven-day period. During this time, the bacteria introduced on the surface of the cheese begins to work its magic, ripening the cheese from the outside in and beginning Limburger’s transformation from a firm, chalky, salty cheese when young to a buttery, pungent, aromatic delicacy when fully aged. Finally, each piece of cheese is hand-wrapped in parchment and waxed paper and readied for shipping.

In fact, Olson says the key to enjoying Limburger is to know when it was made. When very young, up to one month old, it’s firm, crumbly and salty, much like Feta, he says. At six weeks, it’s softening on the corners but still has a firm center that’s salty and chalky. At two months, the core is almost gone and the body is smooth and creamy. At three months or more, it’s developed an intense smell and flavor; it’s spreadable, pungent and almost bitter. “If you like it now, you’re a real Limburger lover,” says Olson, a big, gentle man whose face lights up and eyes twinkle when talking about his favorite cheese.

Committed to carrying on the Limburger tradition, Olson laments the fact that his area of Wisconsin, just outside of Monroe in Green County, used to be home to more than 100 small cheese plants making Limburger, among other Old World varieties. “We’re the only one left—not just in Wisconsin, but in the whole country,” he says. “Sales declined over the years as the old timers died out and consumers started preferring blander cheeses, but they’re on the rise again. People are looking for more fully flavored foods again, and they there’s big interest in handcrafted, authentic regional foods. Our Limburger sales rose significantly last year.”

In addition to its notorious flagship cheese, Chalet produces traditional Swiss, Aged Swiss, Organic Swiss and meltingly creamy whole milk Baby Swiss varieties; Brick and German Brick; Muenster and petite Muenster; and traditional Cheddar cheese varieties.

Myron Olson
Chalet Cheese Cooperative
N4858 Highway N
Monroe, WI 53566
(608) 325-4343