A Journey to the Little Czech Town Made of Stinky Cheese
The town of Loštice, Czech Republic, is famous for its tvarůžek, a soft yellow beer cheese with a distinctively pungent aroma, where it's incorporated into everything from panini to ice cream.
A tvarůžek panini. All photos by the author.
An outsider is apt to wonder whether the denizens of little Loštice, Czech Republic, ever tire of the local cheese. This is a question I pose to Roman Činčara, a native of the town known throughout this country as the home of tvarůžek, a soft yellow beer cheese with a distinctively pungent aroma. Činčara, of course, is the wrong guy to ask. I've just sampled his tvarůžek ice cream, which has recently put him on the map, and he's asked a member of his waitstaff to bring over a tvarůžek panini for me to try; he's also peddling marinated tvarůžek, served with pickled peppers and bread, and two kinds of tvarůžek pizza. "If I could eat only one food, it would be tvarůžek," he says in Czech, earnestly. I feel silly for even asking.
There's no shortage of tvarůžek (TVAR-oo-zhek) in Loštice (LOSH-tee-seh), whose municipal website bears the tagline "metropolis of an [sic] unique smelly-cheese." "Metropolis" is kind of a generous word for this town of 3,000, but there are a few places for a sit-down meal—where the cheese gets top billing—a pastry shop selling several dozen sweets and not-so-sweets made with tvarůžek, and a fancy tvarůžek museum, attached to the well-trafficked tvarůžek factory and store. "The most meaningful cultural-event in the town is 'The celebration of music and smelly-cheese' which is becoming step by step a tradition," reports the town's website, presumably written by a stony-faced person who also does not tire of eating tvarůžek. The most important local sporting event, they note, is known as "The journey in footsteps of the smelly-cheese."
Loštice itself doesn't smell like much, which may be surprising given the ubiquity of tvarůžek in town. The cheese, on the other hand, gives off a distinctive odor, something akin to sneakers that have made a long journey in footsteps. Tvarůžek's name comes from the Czech tvaroh, a curdled milk product resembling cottage cheese (sometimes called "quark" in English), which tvarůžek manufacturers salt and air-dry until it develops a waxy yellow rind. The cheese has been made in the region since the 15th century, but in the late 1800s, a company now known as Alois Wessels (A.W.) commenced large-scale commercial production of "Oloumoucké tvarůžy," or tvarůžek from the Olomouc region, where Loštice is located. In 2010, tvarůžek received a Protected Geographical Indication from the European Union, which denotes that its "quality or reputation is linked to the place or region where it is produced," and which is meant to help ensure authenticity and promote local agriculture.
The original A.W. factory on Loštice's Peace Square still does big business today, and the adjacent museum and flagship store court the town's bustling local tourism industry. When I visited on a recent Saturday, the line of people shopping for cheeses direct from A.W. slinked along a lengthy glass display case, snaked around into a loop, and spilled out the front door. (It's worth noting that there is already a whiff of the humanesque in the air of the A.W. shop, which boasts some 30 variations of tvarůžek and countless foodstuffs made with the product, including a cheesy shrink-wrapped meatloaf and a soft, squeezable tvarůžek sold in a sort of toothpaste tube.) But the biggest name in town that week belonged to Činčara, whose cafe U Lišky Bystroušky had recently been featured in the English-language press, thanks to a syndicated Reuters article with the headline "Stinky cheese ice cream becomes Czech summer hit."
Sandy-haired, scruffy-faced Činčara possesses the semi-aloof charm of a natural celebrity, or at least of a small-town guy who makes it relatively big. As he explains it, he conceived of the idea for a tvarůžek ice cream out of pure pragmatism: "No one had tvarůžek ice cream, so why don't I do it?" Činčara commissioned a chef whom he met at an expo in the Moravian capital, Brno, to develop the recipe: a substantial 30 percent tvarůžek, with a tvaroh base, a little cream and sugar, and a ribbon of fig syrup. Though it certainly looks like ice cream, the final product is neither all that sweet nor all that icy; it bears some resemblance to cream-cheese frosting, but with far superior structural integrity. Dense, savory, and slightly waxy, the melt-resistant ice cream is less "summertime" than "stick-to-your-ribs." Enjoy much more than a golf-ball-sized scoop or two, and you'll have to sprawl out for a catnap on Peace Square.
At the cafe, Činčara comes across as a little distracted, juggling requests from his staff, taking orders, and stopping to shake the hands of people who have come in asking for him. In addition to the cafe, Činčara also runs a paintball company in Olomouc, the country's third-largest city. (This being the Czech Republic, the venue is a picturesque stone fortress dating back to the days of the Hapsburg Monarchy.) But Činčara told me that since the ice cream appeared in the press, things have been pretty crazy for his business in Loštice, where tourism—mostly from within the Czech Republic—had already been keeping the hospitality industry on its toes. "In terms of capacity, there aren't enough restaurants here," Činčara said. "More people come than are able to be served."
If Činčara's success is any indication, the tvarůžek business only has room to grow. And while the rest of the Czech Republic eats the cheeses breaded and deep-fried or marinated in oil and alliums—in either case, as a greasy accompaniment to beer—local ingenuity like Činčara's keeps things fresh for little Loštice. On my way out of town, I stop to pick up a few souvenirs: first for tvarůžek-shaped marzipan (which looks rather like regular marzipan) from Tvarůžek Sweet-Shop, and then for a couple of postcards from the A.W. store. There, collecting a new box of cheese from an employee he appears to know well, is Činčara again, restocking his supply. He gives me a grin, perhaps recognizing that the whole encounter is a little on-the-nose. But for him, it's just the way life is.