Munster Cheese or Munster-géromé, is a strong tasting, soft cheese made mainly from the milk of the vosgian countries between Alsace, Lorraine and Franche-Comté in France.
The name munster may come from the little town of Munster, where, among Vosgian abbeys and monasteries, the cheese was conserved and matured in monk's cellars. It may also refer to the Latin word for monastery, monasterium.
This cheese is a heritage of the Admodiation, an area of vast open and herbous land on the top of the Vosgian mountains, named "Les Chaumes" or "Les grandes Chaumes". Calvomontensis is the Latin word that describes mountaintops without woods.
As early as 1371, and possibly before, these territories were occupied by cattle herds driven by men, called "marcaires". The herds are pastured between May and September. When they return to their valleys, families or herdsmen with cattle have to first give to the religious and political protectors, owners of this upper open land or simply financiers of this transhumance. During feudal times these powerful masters possessed all goods, living creatures, rights of pasture and cattle. The herdsmen and herdswomen were know as serfs.
This mountain population paid their debts with cheese and jars of butter. The lords were the first religious establishments, nominally ladies like chanoinesses from Remiremont or from Andlau, or sires like chanoines or canons from Murbach or Saint-Dié, benedictins from Munster, Senones, Moyenmoutier, Honcourt, moines Premontrés from Etival ou Bongart... Then the political protectors, duke of Lorraine, count of Salm, count of Ribeaupierre, sire du Villé, Alsatian aristocrats, and nonetheless Bourgeois of Alsatian towns...
During the seventh century, this disappearing tradition was always respected in two special places, Gerardmer for the west and Lorraine part of the main range and Munster for the east and Alsatian part. Hence the two names of this cheese, gérômé and munster written with little type.
This cheese is protected by an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This certification places under control the main steps of the cheese process. The producers are required to inspect rigorously :
It is made from unpasteurized cow's milk called crude milk, from the above described zone d'appellation contrôlée. This then white cheese of soft pasted has typical form of flat cylinders, but with practically two common dimensions: little munster gérômé of 7-12 cm diameter, big munster gérômé or munster 13-19 cm diameter.
The cheese's crust must be washed regularly. They are matured in damp cellars for five weeks for the smaller formats (300 g) and up to 2 to 3 months for the larger ones (1500 g). During this period the rind is periodically washed with brine. The added moisture helps the development of bacteria that gives this cheese its particular taste and color.
A commission organized by the syndicat interprofessionnel du fromage de Munster, a professional committee for munster cheese supervised all the preceding steps. In 1982, 8027 tonnes were produced, and only 10 % was exported. 95 % in weight was making in milkery with controlled process, only 5 % comes from farms. The successive operations implicate then 4727 milk's producers, and only 16 endless process operators affineurs. These hegemonic actors could too take, if they bought, white cheeses from 252 farmers who were able to pursue the making at his end.
The cheese munster géromé is at its best in the summer and the autumn, when it is made from milk from the haute chaumes ("high stubble") of pastures that have already been mowed for midsummer hay in the Vosges mountains. The best cheeses come from the haute vallée de Munster itself, but this cheese is also made in Lapoutroie, Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, Villé, and other villages practically or in western Vosges, in Lorraine. Now the touristic industry has supplanted farming near the lake's Valley near Gérardmer.
In 2008 inhabitants of Vosgian towns could buy munster-gérômé in groceries or supermarkets. These AOC cheeses made with crude milk are affinated in Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines, Huttenheim in département Bas-Rhin, Lapoutroie in Haut-Rhin... But surprisingly exist other cheeses called munster with pasteurized milk, because the milk comes from a zone AOP or appellation d'origine protégée, indicated in the charts of the AOC munster-géromé. They are made in industrial cheese factory in Bulgnéville, in Blamont... Even little munster, defined with label AOC, indicated pasteurized milk because they have a derogation to use partially or totally for hygienic purposes. So the choice without eating a piece, as every time in France, because the prices are practically the same, is very confused...
This authentic cheese goes well with a late harvest Gewürztraminer or with young or strong red wines when more mature like Côte-Rôties, Corton, Haut-Médoc, Pinot rouge d'Alsace. In France it's common to appreciate munster-géromé with caraway seeds inside.
There is also an industrial Munster, not protected by an AOC, made from pasteurized milk and exported over the English Channel and over the oceans. Although less expensive, this cheese will never develop the goût du terroir ("local flavor") that is so sought after by connoisseurs. The American version is Muenster cheese, a similar but less distinctive cheese.