Spring is upon us, and we are especially aware in the cheese shop because it’s time for some of our favorite cheeses to arrive. Even though the warm weather may not arrive in Minnesota as early as we would like, these lovely cheeses, which were produced last summer and fall, are released after aging and ripening in faraway mountain caves. This rule applies to many kinds of cheese from around the world, but perhaps none are more dear to a cheese monger’s heart than those incredible mountain cheeses from the French, Swiss and German Alps. Ask nearly anyone in the cheese world to name his or her favorite cheeses and you will likely find Comte, Gruyère, Appenzell, Vacherin Fribourgeois and Beaufort top the list.
No two wheels of these cheeses are alike—each is as individual as a snowflake and reflects the microclimate from which the milk comes. The term transhumance refers to the process by which, in this case, dairy cows, are moved from lower alpine pastures beginning in the spring, to higher alpine pastures as the snow line recedes. The cows are milked daily, of course, and instead of saving the milk or sending it back down the mountain to mix
with the milk from other herds, cheese makers produce wheels of cheese. That is one reason cheesemongers and cheese lovers the world over are so devoted to these Alpine cheeses. The milk produced is rich and full of fat, with notes of herbs, wildflowers, and grasses. Furthermore, as the raw milk is turned into cheese up in the mountains, it is most often done in vats over open fires, lending nuances of wood smoke to the already complex mix. We cracked open an Alpage Gruyère recently and detected woodsy, smoky notes, hazelnuts, cream, and herbs—what a delight! These first wheels of the year should not be missed.
Though the classic Gruyère, Comte, Beaufort, Vacherin and others have been produced for hundreds of years, many world-class cheesemakers are experimenting and stepping outside the Alpine cheese molds of the past and adding new cheeses to their production. Of note, Evelyn Wild, from the Allgau region of Germany, uses only organic, raw milk from a handful of local dairy farmers to produce Adelegger, which she then brines in spiced white wine.
Adelegger has notes of citrus, toffee, and caramel. Reto Guentensperger, who we had the honor of meeting in January in San Francisco, comes from a traditional Appenzell region, where his family has been making cheese for generations. Guentensperger makes Schnebelhorn, a funky, nutty cheese with notes of chives, caramel, and herbs, with a creamy finish. He also makes Guntensberg, which is similar, yet a bit milder, with a rich egg yolk-like, buttery flavor with onion, herbs, and nuts. A third cheese maker, who also comes from Appenzeller, is Walter Rass.
Rass made traditional Appenzell for more than 20 years before he decided to try something different. Today, demand for his Challerhocker far outpaces his traditional Appenzeller cheese. Intense and complex, Challerhocker is sweet with a nut-like richness and is beefy with hints of onion. Half the fun of these cheeses is in identifying the layering and nuances of their flavor profiles. Take home a few, gather a group of like-minded cheese lovers, and
do your own comparing and contrasting.
Be sure to include wines such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, hoppy ales and a hard cider or two; all are sure to accent and complement these magnificent Alpine cheeses. Enjoy!