A Stinky Tour Through the Czech Town of Olomouc

The last thing I wanted to do before I got to Olomouc [pronounced Oh-low-moatz], a town in the north-eastern part of the Czech Republic, was eat cheese that reeked of unwashed feet. But there I was, in a village just outside of the historic university town, at a museum dedicated to the planet’s stinkiest milk derivative. Fans of Olomouc cheese–or, in Czech, Olomoucke tvaruzky–have cause for celebration: the European Union recently granted geographical indication (GI) status on this malodorous dairy product. Which means it now has something in common with Champagne, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and mozzarella bufala di Campana.

But GI status is where the commonalities end. Every time I’d come within five feet of Olomouc cheese in a Czech supermarket dairy counter, the foul smell would announce its presence to my nostrils. A friend in Prague once bet me to eat some. I lost. My mission, I decided during my visit to this off-the-radar town, was to finally fulfill the dare.

Noses have been wrinkling at the stench of Olomouc cheese for at least a half a millennia. Rudolf II, the eccentric 17th-centruy ruler of the Holy Roman Empire who made his home in Prague, is said to have been a fan. But Rudolf may have thrown me in with his pet lions if he knew my hesitation to try it.

So it was even odder that I standing in the epicenter of stank. As unlikely as a guy named Cletus at the opera; Dick Cheney participating in a drum circle; A New Yorker giving up a subway seat for a pregnant woman. Inside the cheese museum, a video in Czech went through hundreds of years of the cheese’s history, showing courageous women loading the jaundiced silver-dollar-size cakes of cheese from the conveyor belt to the basket while the triumphant soundtrack of Chariots of Fire played in the background. The excitable geriatric docent who showed us around the museum’s ancient cheese-making instruments should be awarded a medal – a golden nosey award, perhaps – for his enthusiasm for stinky cheese. When the tour was over, I took a deep breath, evved myself up to finally make good with the dare, and headed for the gift shop.

But the line was out the door. There is, it turns out, a lot more excitement for the Czech Republic’s only indigenous cheese than I thought. So instead, I huffed it back into town, not a scent of wicked-smelling cheese on my breath, in the hope of finding a shorter line. As I wandered Olomouc’s cobblestone streets, passing imposing Baroque churches and 18th-century palaces, I remembered something I’d heard about the city: after the Swedes ended their eight-year occupation of Olomouc in 1650 and moved on to other spoils in Europe, the town was in such disrepair–and who knows? Maybe they hated the cheese–that the ruling Austrian authorities considered completely wiping it out of existence.

Like the Swedes, the communists, who ruled the Czech lands for 41 years, did their part to mess up Olomouc, too. The once-Medieval astronomical clock on Horni Namesti (Upper Square) is not only the most beautiful socialist-themed astronomical clock in the world, it’s the only socialist-themed astronomical clock in the world. Built into the Renaissance-era town hall, the two-story mosaic and time-keeping device’s 12-inch figurines of barrel-chested workers and sinewy, bandana-clad women put on an hourly procession. There were, from what I could tell, no cheese mongers represented.

Later that day I met up with Tereza, a friend of a friend and Olomouc native.

As Tereza and I walked aimlessly, she pointed out sites of interest: Mozart once stayed here, Austrian Empress Maria Thereza there. Eventually, we ended up at the top of a church’s gothic bell tower, one of the highest points in the city.

I decided it was time for an indecent proposal. “Wanna get some cheese?” I asked.

“Olomouc cheese?” she responded, wrinkling her nose at the thought before slowly shaking her head. “You’re with the wrong person if you want to eat that stuff–it smells so bad that my dad has to keep it on the balcony.”

A sighed and then tried to hide my disappointment as Tereza changed the subject to Communist-era architecture. Strike two.

The next day, my last before heading to south Moravia, I sat down in a pub-like eatery hoping–praying to the God of stank–that Olomoucke tvaruzky would be on the menu. I spit out my best Slavic, the waiter nodded and, five minutes later, a harmonious chorus from the heavens raining down, a plate appeared in front of me. On it, were five golden disks of Olomouc cheese. That familiar, repulsive odor assaulted my sense of smell. But, I thought, I can at least leave here having scratched another dare off my list.

And with that, the Chariots of Fire theme playing in my head, I stabbed the first of the five cakes of cheese, loaded it in my mouth, and commenced chewing. It wasn’t bad, actually; not smelly to the taste; just to the nose. Like only one-day-old socks, not the month-old dirty socks my nose always detected.

I’m not sure I’d eat it again, but at least I can say I’ve tried the world’s stinkiest cheese.

As I walked to the train station, I began my next mission: finding breath mints.