Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Munster in the fridge

First published Canberra Times 1 June 2011

We arrive at our house exchange in Chatenois in Alsace feeling pretty strung out after a series of near misses on the Paris to Strasbourg rail leg. We drop our bags and check out what is to be our new home for the next few months. I open the fridge and am knocked sideways by an alarming smell of near-nuclear intensity that explodes into the house. We think something has died in there. What we don’t know is that we have a Munster in the fridge.

The odour rushes past us, up the stairs, and we hear shrill accusation and counter accusation of flatulence from our kids who have gone up to unpack. Everyone converges on the kitchen to investigate.

I’m searching for the offending item in the fridge and thinking unbelievably smelly socks, but the only thing in there is a seemingly innocent round of cheese in a plastic container. I’m begged not to open the container in the house, but to take the “thing” outside and leave it there. Smugly pleased that I have identified this smelly perpetrator, the cheese sits outside for a few days until garbage collection day. For some time afterwards, each time the fridge is opened, a pungent reminder radiates into the kitchen. We enter the world of Munster cheese.

There is no doubt that Munster is formidable, described as having a farmyard aroma, and is not for the feint hearted. It’s taken us some months to get beyond its teenage-boys-dirty-socks pungency to truly appreciate this washed rind cheese, seeking it out wherever we can. Don’t let the smell discourage you. This is a truly delicious cheese.

To have a closer look at the production process, we contact the Ferme du Saesserle dairy in Breitenbach and arrange to rendezvous at Auberge Reid, a farm inn, located in Erstein, six kilometres from the town of Munster, high above the Munster Valley. We arrive at the agreed time, and again as a result of our poor French, find we are a day too early for the cheese-making. However, by fluke, the Auberge is celebrating the Transhumance festival and we are invited to stay for the festivities.

Le Sonneurs
 Transhumance is the celebration of the yearly migration of the dairy herd from the valley to graze the higher mountain spring pastures. The locals dress in traditional garb and walk with the herd up the road, stopping along the way to perform rituals that date back to antiquity.

Synchronised bell ringing by the well-drilled “Sonneurs” is followed by a trio of mountain horn players who herald the herd’s arrival and departure for the next waypoint on their journey up the mountain. The cows are resplendent, wearing large bells on decorated leather straps around their necks. Festivities at our Auberge ramp up at the arrival of the herd. The
accordion band swings into jaunty polkas and waltzes and icy cold beer and Alsatian wine flows to wash down mountains of bredzel and kugelhopf.

With the oompah music, beer, bredzels and a pink-cheeked boy standing next to me wearing lederhosen, I’m having trouble believing I am in France instead of Germany or Switzerland.

A solo horn player then moves up into the centre of the herd and plays a call and response with the other two horns. The cows lift their heads and appear to understand that their move for the next higher pasture has been announced.

Munster cheese has been made in Alsace since the Middle Ages, initially by monks who were prohibited from eating meat for long periods of time. It must have been a very fragrant environment, with the combination of unbathed monks, dung and the pungent aromas of Munster cheese making contained within the cloistered walls. Without thermometers, cheese-making was a pretty hit and miss affair. Temperature was measured by sticking a finger into the warm milk which introduced many rogue bacteria into the process.

Traditional Munster is made in Alsace by only a handful of dairies that still use raw milk and follow a prescribed series of steps. Its production centre is the pretty village of Munster, set amid pastures and vineyards. The cheese is rubbed by hand with a solution of rock-salt and water to develop the growth of bacteria, giving a strong flavour to the cheese and preventing mould from forming. The young Munsters are then transferred into caves next to old Munsters, and every second day they are washed and brushed.

A young Munster cheese has a thin but firm, pinkish-red rind with white paste. As it matures the rind turns to a darker russet colour with a deep straw-coloured interior. The interior is soft and supple filled with small holes, and as it matures the paste becomes creamy in texture. The maturation time is usually two to three months.

Certain Munsters are protected origin designation cheeses, meaning that they must be made by dairies in a particular way to be labelled and sold as Munster. By protecting these Munsters, it is hoped that the culinary heritage of the cheese will be preserved for generations to come. Traditional Alsatian Munster should not be confused with cheese varieties with similar names, such as muenster, adapted for milder tastes and made in other parts of the world.

We have tried Munster in a number of ways. It is commonly sprinkled on Tarte Flambée, and is an important ingredient in the Tourte de la Vallée, a traditional Munster pork and veal pie. It’s also used in a number of tarts and commonly added to Alsatian potato dishes. While these are all tasty and unique, they are very heavy and rich.

For me, I believe that the flavour of Munster is best enjoyed when served simply - on a cheese platter and sprinkled with cumin seeds. It also adds another dimension to a spinach salad or added to hot pasta, but always accompanied by a fruity Gewürztraminer

Munster cheese is available through a number of online suppliers in Australia; just ensure you order Munster from Alsace.

Photos by Steve Shanahan