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Culture’s Believe It or Not: Milbenkäse

Cheese innovators since time immemorial have pushed the limits of the curd, and some of their innovations are as bizarre as they are delicious. In Culture’s Believe It or Not, sit back, forget everything you know about cheese, and take a bite out of the weirdest wheels the world has to offer. Missed the last post on, *ahem*, people cheese? Check it out!

As we have previously explained, there is at least a small segment of the population who don’t share the general idea that having stuff crawl around in your food is a bad idea. Our need of non-sentient meals might be a leftover survival instinct to get us from eating rotten food. Or scorpions. Or any other of infinite amount of things you should never put in your mouth. Whatever the case may be, when the first people sat down and chartered up the governing laws of humanity, they took special care to chisel “bugs r ikky” right after “no hed smashy-smashy” into their obelisk. No one has found that specific hunk of rock yet per se, but I have my crazy yarn-and-thumbtack-conspiracy-corkboard really well organized, so you’ll (eventually) be sorry for ever doubting me.

Since I’m spending all this time putting the idea of sentient foodstuffs back in your head, you can probably guess where this post is going, and if not—surprise—it’s about bug cheese.

These are the bugs you’re looking for (but at 400x magnification, so relax)

Specifically, I’m talking about a German delicacy called Milbenkäse, which predictably translates to something like “mite cheese,” although some erroneously call it “spider cheese,” which adds a penthouse and a pool to the hi-rise of horror this wheel has built for itself. Those bugs—or tenants, depending how far we want to take this metaphor—are called cheese mites (or Tyrophagus casei if you’re a Caesar), and they like to eat.

The way the cheese is made is not totally unlike that of its most notorious counterpart in the habitable cheese world, the aforementioned Casu Marzu. First the good folk of the village of Würchwitz, Germany—the curd’s sole source of origin—lget to milking; afterwards, they take the milk and make something called quark out of it. This quark is not to be confused with the quantum quark, an elementary particle on the quantum level that also comes in “flavors”: up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom. While the prospect of finding out what a charm quark tastes like is enticing, the quantum sorcery surrounding it is so deep and ancient that acclaimed quantum warlock Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” and they gave him a Nobel Prize for it.

“Thanks for the cool mil, old boy, but I don’t know what I’m doing!”
Photo Credit: The Caltech Archive

So we’re sticking with the cheesy quark, also known as farmer’s cheese, similar to cottage cheese—which, as a sidenote, goes great with spaghetti. Once the milk has been properly quarked, they salt, dry, and box it up. Except the box is full of bugs. There are so many mites in the boxes the makers add flour as well, to ensure the mini munchers don’t eat the whole wheel. The bugs trundle diligently about, eating the rind and oozing digestive juices as they go. The liquid they secrete seeps into the cheese and ferments it while the mites stay on the rind, and have their little spider party undisturbed for anywhere from one to three months. Once the time has come, the cheese is removed and eaten.

Notice I never said it was deloused—or de-mited, whatever. Point is, it isn’t.

Unlike its French counterpart, Mimolette, Milbenkäse retains the right to the mites, so to speak, and they are still alive at the time of consumption. Mimolette is made in almost the same way, but the French take care of the almost-pests with a blast of air before retail takes place. The air-pressure insecticide doesn’t shake all the mites, however, and in 2013 the FDA ordered that there be no more than six mites per square inch on cheeses sold in America, which is basically impossible. It’s the cheese equivalent of a court order making Manhattan six people per square mile, which is crazy.

Since the mites stay put on Milbenkäse, the wheel falls into something of a legal grey area, because food with live stuff in it can be approved in the EU, but cheese mites don’t make the list. But, like we said before, it can only be made in one small town, so unless you live there you don’t need to worry, and if you do, it sounds like more of a “you” problem. If you’re still having any doubts about the mightiness—er—mite-y-ness of the cheese check out the video below and then go back to your job or hobby or spouse or child and continue your life just as before, but now always with the knowledge that somewhere it’s out there and it’s moooovin’ around.

Feature Photo Credit: “A wheel of young Milbenkäse” by Benutzer:Dundak

Brook O'Meara-Sayen

Brook O’Meara-Sayen is a journalism student at Emerson College forever on the hunt for that last ten minutes of sleep. In his spare time he enjoys reading, Merle Haggard, and spending Friday evenings trying to break his personal record for most cheddar eaten in one sitting.

One thought on “Culture’s Believe It or Not: Milbenkäse”

  1. Avatar Melanie says:

    Okay. No. Just… No.

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