My Saturday morning shopping trip always starts with a visit to the neighborhood cheese shop. Once I get there, I check the sign in the window to see what’s in season. If it’s not something that I haven’t tried before, I go in and shop for something interesting.
This weekend a medium-sized, soft, raw cow milk cheese caught my eye. However: I’ve been focussing on French cheeses, and this one was called Munster–a German place name. He iz French, this cheese here?, I asked the always-helpful attendant. Yes, she answered–it’s from Alsace. That explained the German name–Alsace and Lorraine are regions that go back and forth between France and Germany, depending on who won the most recent war. At home, people often speak German, but the official language of school, the government, etc. is French. (Wikipedia says that 43% of adults speak the local dialect of German, but that its use is disappearing among the younger generation.)
Every French cheese has its story–and its particularities. Munster is thought to be one of the oldest cheeses in the country. I’ve seen estimates of its date of origin from the 700s to the 800s. The story is that it had its origin in the village of Munster, currently located near the very easternmost part of France, quite close to Germany. The village is thought to have taken its name from the Latin word monasterium, meaning a monastery or a monk’s cell in Medieval Latin. People clustered around the monastery, and in order to ensure the availability of food to the surrounding populace, the monks made this cheese. (I’m a little skeptical–like any other soft cheese, Munster doesn’t last very long.) Another story is that the cheese was brought into the region by monks who came to Christianize the area during the time of Charlemagne. In the 1500s, it became popular outside of the region, being sold not just in Paris, but in Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Germany as well. Back in those days, the price of the cheese for the upcoming year was announced every June 23rd at a large fair in the town of Gérardmer–I’ve never heard anything similar about any other cheese.
Some cheeses are defined in part by what the cows have to be fed in order for a cheese to have the right to its name, and Munster is one of those. The cows have to graze on the grass of the massif of the Vosges, in eastern France. This is what gives the cheese its terroir, its regional character. During its preparation, the surface of the cheese is salted, and you can taste that very clearly. While it ages, it is occasionally washed with beer. This kind of washing is characteristic of cheeses that originated in monasteries, and specific cheeses have to be washed with specific things. If it’s not washed with beer, it’s not Munster.
Munster (pronounced, incidentally, [mœ̃stɛʁ]]) smells stronger than it tastes, so it’s actually not a bad cheese for an American who is just starting to explore the stinky cheeses (even the French call them les fromages qui pue, “cheeses that stink”). Enjoy!