The family of cheeses known as alpine is bigger than the Von Trapps, and every bit as engaging. While as Americans we tend to lump these cheeses together under the blanket term, “Swiss,” there are many amazing cheeses that have little in common with the Swiss you’ll find at your local supermarket. The term “alpine cheese” simply means any cheese indigenous to the Alps, the European mountain range marking the borders of Switzerland, France, Austria, and Italy. These cheeses have achieved global fame and replication, however, because of the centuries-old recipes and methods that make these cheeses so special.
You might say that alpine cheeses have been shaped by the mountains themselves. Because the mountains classically insulated populations from one another, every valley and region has developed unique styles and distinct methods for making and eating cheese. One of the unifying factors in all alpine cheeses is the art of transhumance, the practice of shifting animals to different altitudes depending on the season. This routine protects against harsh seasonal conditions, permitting animals to dine on hay in colder months and to graze the famously lush grasslands in the summer.
From a cheese-making standpoint, the truly great aspect of transhumance is the way it nuances the flavors in the milk depending upon the time of year. And since the animals are grazing on exclusive mountain pastures with little microclimates, each cheese tastes different than the next. The plants the cows eat come through in the flavor of the cheese: you can actually taste flowers, for instance, or grasses and herbs.
A Hard-Knock Life
Alpine cheeses are typically semi-firm to hard, owing largely to the nature of their production. To make these cheeses, milk is heated in huge copper cauldrons over a fire. The curds are then “cooked” (reheated to a higher temperature) and pressed. These steps get rid of excess moisture, allowing the cheese to age up to several years.
Another catch-all for alpines is that they are always made in a large format, produced in great big wheels that weigh upwards of 20 pounds. This facilitates a longer shelf life and gives the cheese some stability during its journey down from the mountains. Alpine cheeses are also typically sourced from cow’s milk, and have natural or washed/smear-ripened rinds.
Alpine cheeses run the gamut in style and flavor. If you like Parmesan, try Hobelkaese, a hard, spicy, raw milk cheese often shaved onto dishes for an amazing accompaniment. Emmentaler is another delicious choice; it’s a beloved cheese in the U.S. that is well-known for its nutty, slightly sweet flavor. Its signature large holes are formed by carbon dioxide created by Propionibacterium freudenreichii bacteria introduced in the cheesemaking process.
Other delicious alpine varieties are the fondue cheeses; these are PDO-regulated and come from the Swiss Fribourg-Vaud region. There are three main types: Gruyere, L’Etivaz, and Vacherin Fribourgeois—all very tasty in molten or solid form.
From the Valais region comes one of the most scrumptious varieties of all, Raclette. This cheese is silky, earthy, and creamy. By tradition, a half-wheel would be placed in front of the hearth. When its surface blistered, a racler (scraper) was used to scoop the cheese onto bowlfuls of boiled potatoes. Not everyone has a fireplace and a racler, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this milky, full-flavored treat.
Of course, there are many other alpine cheeses to choose from, and that’s part of the fun. Tasting the cheeses of varying climates, regions, and styles will help you to distinguish different flavor profiles and decide what you like best!
A Mountain of Options
How to enjoy an alpine cheese? Let us count the ways:
- Molly McDonough, video producer and contributor for culture, currently lives in Switzerland and recommends white wine—particularly Fendant—with Raclette. Molly says, “Where I live, drinking beer, red wine, or even water [with Raclette] is strictly forbidden (some crazy myth about how water makes the cheese congeal in your stomach but white wine helps you digest it). You also take a shot of apricot schnapps halfway through the meal and another at the end.”
- Serve a supple brandy-washed Appenzeller alongside stewed or grilled pears to compliment it’s fruity, robust flavor, or slip it into your favorite fondue recipe.
- An alpine cheese will steal the show in this recipe for Comte, Dijon, and Herb-stuffed Pork Tenderloin.
- Or try it in our recipe for these Comte, Caramelized Onion, and Tomato Tarts