Serious Cheese: Alpine Cheese 101

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All About Cheese

Everything you need to know about eating and cooking with curds

With Winter in full swing here in New York, I thought it would be a good time to talk in a little more detail about alpine cheeses, which are at their peak during this season. Because of the varied vegetation on which the alpine cows feed, these cheeses have rich, complex flavor, and yet are some of the most accessible cheeses out there. I have yet to meet someone who otherwise enjoys cheese but dislikes a really good Gruyère.

Man, These Cheeses Are Big

Wheels of Gruyère and Comté, two of the more famous alpine cheeses, are about 40 inches in diameter and weigh 65 to 85 pounds. Emmental, the cheese that most Americans know simply as "Swiss Cheese," can be up to 44 inches in diameter, six inches thick, and weigh up to 220 pounds. Why such mammoth proportions?

These cheeses have their origin in the remote valleys of the Alps, isolated from one another by lush mountain meadows. The amount of arable land in the valleys was extremely limited, and these mountain pastures were otherwise not conducive to growing standard crops, so many cowherds took to the mountains during the summer to let their herd graze on fresh grass. In a process known as transhumance, the herders would begin near the valley in spring and work their way up the mountain as the snow melted over the course of the summer. They built cheesemaking huts (chalets) at various elevations up the mountainside so they'd be able to make cheese at any point in that process without carrying the milk back down to the valley.

Because of the harsh conditions, it made more sense to make huge batches of cheese at once so that the cowherds could bring the gigantic but hardy wheels down the mountain to market in one fell swoop. Remember, too, that the cowherds had to shlep any cheesemaking supplies up the mountain as well, so thy tended to use ingredients like salt sparingly. The low salt content of alpine cheeses is one of the things that give these cheeses their sweet, nutty taste and elastic, meltable texture. The mountain meadows, filled with a wonderful array of wildflowers and grasses, also play a key part in the complex flavors of these cheeses.

Why the Holes?

Alpine cheeses are perhaps most famous for their holes, which can vary in size from large olive-sized holes to tiny caper-sized ones (although some alpine cheeses have no holes at all). The holes are the by-product of CO2-producing bacteria called Propionibacterium shermannii, which thrive in the low-salt, low-acid environment of alpine cheeses. These bacteria are also crucial to the "Swiss" flavor of these cheeses. The bacteria release the gas as they digest the curd early in the cheesemaking process, and as the cheese hardens the gas bubbles become permanent holes.

Alpine and Wine

Alpine cheeses tend to go well with more mild, younger red wines like a Beaujolais cru, or drier white wines like Sancerre. I once had a delicious 18-month old Comté that paired well with a Vin Jaune, aromatic, funky, yellow wine from the same region of the Alps that the cheese is from.

Well that's it for our Alpine Cheese 101. Please let us know what alpine cheeses you like (or maybe you're a blue cheese hater?), and what you like to pair them with.