There are several variations on what constitutes Muenster cheese.
In general, it is a washed rind, semi-firm cheese, that is soft, creamy and yellowish inside, with a red sticky rind outside. The rind is edible, though some cut if off because it has a very salty taste from being washed with brine while it is aging. The cheese is very mild when young, but it becomes very, very smelly when old, and really smelly when very old.
American versions are sold younger, and with a weaker taste, than European versions.
Some versions of Muenster may be flavoured with anise or caraway.
Muenster is made in Germany and France, as well as in Copenhagen (Denmark), and in Wisconsin (United States). But despite the German name, very few Muenster cheeses are actually made in Germany these days. And note that the French spelling of ‘Muenster’ is ‘Munster’.
North American Muenster
The North American version is essentially an imitation of European Muenster. Supple, moist and pale inside, it is also quite bland (some wags say it’s like latex.) It is useful, though, when you need a cheese that will provide body without interfering with the taste of other ingredients. It does have some smell to its rind, but that is not reflected in the taste of the cheese.
This version is made starting with pasteurized whole cow’s milk. The milk is partially skimmed, heated, then has rennet and bacteria added. When curdled, the curd is cut, whey is drained away, and the curd is put in moulds. The moulds are let stand for 24 hours. Then, the cheeses are turned out of their moulds, and either rubbed with salt or dipped in brine. The cheeses are given an initial aging of 3 weeks. Then, small cheeses are ripened 4 to 6 weeks; large ones 2 to 3 months. While ripening, the cheeses are washed with brine.
The French spelling of Muenster is actually Munster.
The French Muenster is considered by many to be the best. The farmhouse versions are made from unpasteurized milk, and industrial versions made from pasteurized milk. Industrially-made ones don’t develop the penetrating taste or smell of the farmhouse ones. The farmhouse ones have achieved French AOC status (see below.)
Even French versions without cumin or caraway are often served with cumin or caraway seeds on the side.
French Muensters are made in sizes ranging from 115 g to 1 ⅓ kg (4 oz to 3 pounds).
French AOC Muensters
These are farmhouse Muensters made in France that have been awarded French AOC status.
They use unpasteurized cow’s milk.
When made in the Gérardmer valley (in Lorraine), the cheese is called Munster-Géromé. Other names for variations on this AOC grade of Muenster are Munster, Petit-Munster or Petit-Munster Géromé.
The cheeses range in size between 12 and 20 cm (5 and 8 inches) wide and 3 to 5 cm (1 to 2 inches) thick. The weight range is from 300 g to 1.5 kg (10 oz to 3 ⅓ pounds).
Small ones are aged 5 weeks; large ones 2 to 3 months. 21 days is the minimum aging time for Munster or Munster-Géromé; le petit Munster or petit Munster-Géromé is aged a minimum of 14 days.
These cheeses are washed with brine and annatto (for colouring), and turned every two days. While maturing, they are put next to old ones so the bacteria from the old ones can pass to the new ones.
These AOC versions have a shiny red rind the colour of a brick, which is caused by bacteria, but enhanced by the addition of the annatto.
They have also achieved European PDO status (PDO Reg No 2081/92.) The PDO name is Munster of Munster-Géromé, made in Alsace and Lorraine.
The cheeses have a fat content of 45% fat. They smell a great deal, but have a lot of flavour in compensation.
A German version, Münster, is made by a few companies in Germany. One is the Glocknerhof company (Käserei Glocknerhof) in Münstertal, Germany. Another company is called “Käserei Zurwies” in Wangen, Germany. The Wangen version has a mild taste. It is very pale, almost white, ripened 4 to 5 weeks, and sold in 650 g (23 oz) rounds, with an orangey-yellow or orangey-red rind.
Though Muenster sure sounds like a German cheese, it really isn’t anymore. In the German town actually called Münster (90 miles / 150 km north of Cologne), they don’t actually make any cheese at all there any more.
Germany used to make far more Muenster, but exports of it dropped off during the Nazi era, further allowing the French makers to become better known.
Muenster Cheese has a minimum fat content of 45%.
Per 30 g (1 oz): Calories 105, Carbohydrate .3 g, Protein 8.5 g, Calcium 200 mg
According to the PDO application filed for Muenster Cheese, the cheese was first made in the Flecht valley (now called Munster) in the area of Europe known as the Haut-Rhin of Alsace, which is currently (2007) a part of France. There, a monastery dedicated to St Gregory was established by monks from Ireland in the 500s. For the 200 years following 575, Ireland sent monks abroad, establishing 113 monasteries in total throughout Europe. In the 600s, the monks in the Flecht valley were joined by Benedictines who arrived from Italy.
Some maintain, consequently, that the cheese wasn’t originally German or French at all: that it was originally Irish, and that the Munster name comes from Munster province in Ireland. Many others, though, wave that off, and feel that the word Munster is derived from the Latin word for monastery, “Monasterium“. Still, the Irish supporters aren’t to be put off that easily: they point to a version of the Munster recipe that is still held on a scrap of parchment in the Abbey Library (known as “Stiftsbibliothek“) associated with the Dom (Cathedral) of St Gallen, formerly an abbey church, in Switzerland. It is written in 9th century Irish.
The area of Alsace (or rather, the regions that would become them in modern history) went back and forth between Germany and France from 843 AD to 1945 AD. At the time that the recipe was written down, Alsace was German (German from 925 AD to 1648 AD, from 1871 to 1919, and from 1940 to 1944), but the monks appear to have been French (though for all we know, they may have spoken Latin instead of German or French.)
A brief history of the area follows, it is difficult to know whether to term the cheeses German or French, particularly because historically Alsace has been German far longer than it has been French:
- 843 AD — Alsace becomes part of Lotharingia. Lotharingia comprised present-day Alsace, Belgium, Lorraine, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and north-western Germany, as well as Italy, Burgundy, Provence and western Switzerland);
- 870 — Alsace becomes part of the duchy of Swabia in the Holy Roman Empire, as per the terms of the Treaty of Meersen;
- 1639 — France occupies Alsace;
- 1648 — Treaty of Westphalia awards most of Alsace to France, but the towns in it such as Strasbourg still maintain a good deal of independence;
- 1681 — France occupies Strasbourg;
- 1697 — Holy Roman Empire formally signs all of Alsace over to France in the Treaty of Rijswijck;
- 1789 — Alsace is divided into two départements, Haut- and Bas-Rhin;
- 1870 – 1871 — the Franco-Prussian War was an embarrassment for France. Germany gained control not only over Alsace but of neighbouring Lorraine as well.
- 1919 — Treaty of Versailles assigns both Alsace and Lorraine back to France;
- 1940 — Germany occupies and annexes Alsace and Lorraine again;
- 1944 — Alsace and Lorraine returned to France.
An Irish monk, St Columbanus of Ireland, also established monasteries in the Vosges region. One of the PDO versions, Munster-Géromé, comes from around Géromé, a the town in Lorraine on the other side of the Vosges mountains.
Munster means monastery, coming from the Latin word “monasterium“.
Alsace is “Elsaß” in German.