Today one of France's most famed washed-rind cheeses, Munster had humble beginnings in the Middle Age monasteries surrounding the Vosges Mountains of France's Alsace, Lorraine, and Franche Comté regions near the border with Germany. Formerly known as Munster only on the Alsace side of the mountains, and Géromé on the Lorraine side, the two cheeses were united in 1978 under a protected AOC (now a European PDO) for Munster and Munster-Géromé.
Milk traditionally comes from Vosgiennes cows, a breed that was imported from Scandanavia in the 18th century and is known for the high protein content of its milk. The cheeses come in either pasteurized or raw versions, and production can be fermier (farmstead), coopérative, or industriel (industrial). During the summer, some of the best versions are made from the milk of cows grazing on high mountain pastures. During the winter, the animals are moved closer to the farm and although the cheese can still be excellent, it tends to have slightly different characteristics.
PDO regulations dictate that all cheeses must be matured within a designated area and that the minimum time for aging is three weeks before release, although ten weeks is more common. (In the case of the mini version, Petit Munster, the minimum time is two weeks.)
Rind and aroma are the keys to Munster's maturity. Young cheeses have a pale rind that is pinkish-white in color, soft, but relatively dry and not overly pungent. As the cheeses age and receive their regular brine washes, the rind is transformed to a rich, red-orange color with a distinctly sticky (but not slimy) surface and an assertive, pungent smell that—love it or loathe it—cannot be ignored.
When young, the texture of a ripe Munster is pale cream in color, firm (yet smooth) and slightly brittle. With age, the bacterial activity of the rind transforms the texture into a luscious, soft, meltingly unctuous paste and the color darkens slightly. Flavors are very rich, smooth, and slightly tangy on the finish.
Munster pairs well with crisp Alsatian whites or dessert wines.