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Pining for Alpine Cheese

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By Rachael Lucas

Hooray, it’s cold outside! Let's embrace the chill because during the winter months, cheese that gets devoured with fervor is that of the Alpine variety.

The little black dress sort of cheese. This style of cheese possesses a versatility that one does not find in the other genres. Along with its numerous uses, Alpine cheese is rich in tradition and history, and we have the Celts to thank for its origins.

Many people associate the Celtic culture with Western Europe when in fact, they originated in Central Europe (think Poland). They were tireless nomads, and they were cattle farmers. Everywhere they settled, their livestock went, too. They understood the importance of preserving their milk, so as to not starve in the winter. One can find a smattering of their influence in the Alps. For instance, the Celts introduced a grazing technique that transpires to this day in the mountainous, cheese-making sectors of Europe. This technique is called Transhumance, and it guarantees a round flavor profile and an insurmountable conciliate that the cheese that we are enjoying comes free from pesticides, herbicides, and is undeniably organic.

comte flavor wheel PicmonkeyComte flavor wheel helps explain complexity of this cheese

Transhumance is a means of ensuring that the livestock (usually cattle in the Alps) are ingesting a wide range of mountainous grass, herbs, flowers, and any other kind of tasty foliage that the animals encounter. They start in the valley in the spring and graze through the seasons, all the way to the highest pastures in the summer and then work their way back down in the fall. Small edifices called chalets are situated along the side of the mountain where milk is collected and cheese is made.

Technically, any cheese made in the Alps is an Alpine cheese. There are venerated soft-ripened cheeses, such as Vacherin Mont D’Or, Petit Vaccarinus, and Reblochon, that could never be dismissed as non-mountainous. These cheeses stem from their rightful, extensive histories. When most of us think of Alpine cheese, however, we tend to think of something larger. Typical Alpine cheeses are unpasteurized, semi-firm to firm, cooked, pressed, washed rind, grass fed (hay in the winter), full-flavored beasts. Propionic bacterium are responsible for holes (eyes) in the paste, which are a result of carbon dioxide--internal gas blowing! Though relatively large, the wheels vary in scope, depending on the type of cheese, its peculiar traditions and regulations (if name protected). Though they are similar, there are minor tweaks in each cheese that make them unique in and of themselves.

France's Comté, for instance, isn’t merely washed in a salt brine. They use morge, which is a mixture of surface flora from leftover rinds, brine, and in some cases, alcohol such as cider, marc, or beer. It’s a sloppy concoction that propagates several hundreds of new microbes that work to create one of the most widely ingested cheeses in the world. It is love and war on that rind. An entire flavor wheel has been created to pinpoint the vastness of flavor and aroma that exist in this cheese alone.

Another example is traditional Swiss Emmenthaler, which is made in enormous wheels that only receive salt at the commencement of their aging journey. The orb of fused curd bobs around in a salt solution for 24 hours, and that is all the salting this cheese gets. Such an extensive salt bath at the onset of cheese aging significantly stifles initial acidification. Furthermore, Emmenthal's aging cellar has particularly high humidity. The result is a sweeter cheese with large eyes (this one's gassy) and a melt and stretch that goes on infinitely.

When asked to identify my “desert island cheese,” I usually designate Switzerland's Chällerhocker. It is made in the style of Appenzeller, but with full fat milk (Appenzeller, along with numerous Alpine cheeses, is partially skimmed). The extra fat prevents it from being as piquant as Appenzeller can be. Chällerhocker is one of the most pleasurable cheeses that I have ever tasted. It is artisinally made by one family, so we can be sure that each wheel is going to have its own distinct character. We can rely on it to possess a deep flavor profile. It ranges from lolly sweet to alliums and boiled cabbage. It can taste like toasted pepitas, beef stew, or dried pear. The texture is thick, hefty cream with intermittent tyrosine crunchies that make each bite a celebration. And this is just experiencing it as a table cheese. Please, try melting it.

LEtivaz and Coffee Breakfast PicmonkeyL'Etivaz and coffee breakfast

The reason why Alpine cheese is so popular in the winter is that it melts like nothing else. Melting points depend on levels of acidity. To be sure, the acidity varies in these cheeses, but not enough to prevent them from creating some of the best melty dishes in existence. Some examples are: pommes aligot, fondue, raclette, French onion soup, mac and cheese, cheesy toast, au gratin potatoes, and cheese and beer soup, just to name a few! These are some of my go-to melting dishes to keep me fat and happy during these dark months. Winter eating should be warm and comforting.

There is such a variety of Alpine cheese available in the U.S. that we can play with them to determine which we like the best for our discerning palates and schnauzes. Schnebelhorn, for example, is an outstanding Swiss cheese, but I prefer it as a snacker, not a melter. Its aroma fetidly permeates, so it is never going to star in a tomato soup and cheese grillie dinner in my house. I wouldn't have known this, had I not tried.

Some Alpine cheeses that are commonly available for purchase in the U.S. that I recommend are: Gruyère, Comté, Abondance, Chällerhocker, L’Etivaz, Schnebelhorn, Beaufort, Aarewasser, Raclette (I prefer French), Der Scharfe Maxx, Fontina Val d'Aosta, Sprinz, and Güntensberg. Some domestic Alpine style dandies include Wisconsin’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Vermont’s Tarentaise and Raclette, California’s Bishop’s Peak, and Vermont’s Alpha Tolman. Try making dishes combining several of these cheeses, as they will create a surprising melt and stretch. Moreover, they truly buttress one another in flavor and texture.

Although Alpine cheeses are most commonly relished during this time of the year in the U.S., it’s a good idea to taste them in every month, as one will notice variances in flavors and textures from season to season. There are plenty of ways to eat these cheeses that do not require melting. Try having some by itself for breakfast. I have yet to find another fashion of cheese that pairs better with coffee, as the two bring out their inherent roasty notes. Shave it onto your summer salad. Have it for dessert with your bourbon on the rocks. Put it on a cracker with mustard, sopressata, and a cornichon; crack open a brown ale, and you have one of the most satisfying peasant-food snacks possible. One of my favorite ways to eat this type of cheese is to simply cut it into matchstick wedges for an easy grab-and-munch while I’m cooking dinner.  

As you experiment with your newfound love for Alpine cheese, take note of the subtle differences. Rest assured that most of these cheeses have been made in their respective manners, using the same breeds of animal, and aged with a fixed temperature and humidity that has proved to be exactly what each type of cheese requires to bring out its best. And this has been the case for centuries in many instances. When you indulge in Alpine cheese, you're not just biting into ordinary fromage. Oh no, you're tasting evidence of history, masticating tradition, and gulping down years of trial and error, only to digest perfection. Happy winter!

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note:  Rachael is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  You can find more of her writing on Tumblr under Lukaasrachael.

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