Ancient Czech cheese thrives as stinky EU delicacy

Adults love it, but the smell is more than most kids can bear.

Tvaruzky, a stinky low-fat Czech curd cheese has won a coveted EU protected geographical indication (PGI), similar to Italy's venerable Parmesan or France's Roquefort cheese.

Its popularity has inspired a novelty Tvaruzky "sweetshop" and even vending machines.

Gourmets and average Czechs alike throng to its home in Lostice, a sleepy provincial town about 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of the capital Prague. Neighbouring Slovakia is a major export market along with Austria, Germany, Hungary and Poland.

Lostice is the only place on Earth where Tvaruzky is made. A factory founded in 1876 has a well-stocked shop, while a nearby cafe offering "Tvaruzky tiramisu" and Tvaruzky with ice-cream is pushing the culinary limits of this pungent honey-and-butter coloured treat.

There's even a Tvaruzky vending machine at a local pub for clients who enjoy it with beer.

Miroslav Stefanik from the eastern city of Havirov carries two bags stuffed with Tvaruzky delicacies as he strolls across the town's sprawling central square.

"I make regular trips to the factory shop. I've bought Tvaruzky and other cheese for about 500 koruna (20 euros, $25), for myself and the family," he says after making a detour of almost 100 kilometres (60 miles) on his way home from a business trip.

The AW Lostice factory, whose 140 staff annually churn out up to 2,000 tonnes of Tvaruzky in an array of shapes and sizes, uses a blend of various types of curd to create this stinky delicacy with a slimy surface.

"The length of the ripening period depends on what you prefer. Some want a curd-like core, while gourmets prefer well-ripened cheese," says production manager Miroslav Zemanek, adding experts can tell how ripe the cheese is by poking it.

With just one percent fat and less than half the calories of the standard product, Tvaruzky made with skimmed milk is just right for calorie counters, Zemanek says, and insists it's like eating steak.

"It's pure protein. Meat eaters might just as well eat Tvaruzky instead," he says.

'And the cheese stands alone'

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Tvaruzky's smelly origins stretch back to the 15th century when farmers started making it to use up extra milk.

It was even a currency in the 17th century, when the going rate for well diggers was "one golden coin and 120 pieces of Tvaruzky for six feet," according to a historic script on the company's website.

Then, villages across the region made Tvaruzky, with five major producers surviving until the 1980s. Now, Lostice is the only one left.

Tvaruzky was awarded its protected geographical indication in 2010.

The European Union's PGI safeguards traditional, regional products by banning imitators from using their name as a brand. PGI labels assure consumers the product is an original, and protect the interests of local farmers and producers.

But Zemanek complains strict EU regulations on milk purity are wreaking havoc with Tvaruzky's notorious smell.

"The purer the milk, the purer the curd. The pressure for meeting international standards and boosting hygiene is growing and at the end of the process we find that Tvaruzky is no longer as aromatic as it used to be," Zemanek said.

He enjoys his Tvaruzky with Czech beer, a popular combo in this nation of beer-drinkers which boasts the world's highest per capita consumption.

Just round the corner from the central square, Zdenka Postulkova and her husband recently opened a Tvaruzky "sweetshop" selling cakes, pies, rolls and pancakes filled with Tvaruzky cream, some of them sweet.

"We invented the products gradually. Most of them are based on Danish pastry," she says as a faint smell of Tvaruzky fills the shop that also sells Tvaruzky hotdogs, with Tvaruzky sticks taking the place of the sausage.

Outside, Lostice pensioner Marie Volkova says she prefers Tvaruzky "fried, or with freshly baked bread, fresh butter and beer."

"Of course, when I go somewhere and say I'm from Lostice, everybody knows," she adds proudly, in the region's unmistakable accent.

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