I really like Alpine cheeses. A lot. So much so that I’m having a hard time refraining from the use of expletives to describe how much, suffice it to say that this declaration is missing modifiers.
I’ll even bet that you love them, too. Behind the cheese counter, we have certain wheels we refer to as “crowd-pleasers.” Sounds like code for “boring,” but it is anything but when we use it to describe the family of cheeses made in the mountains. Gruyère, Raclette, Comté, Emmentaler, the classic holey Swiss your Grandma put on sandwiches—chances are, you’ve tasted and most likely loved an Alpine cheese.
“Alpine” doesn’t always mean a cheese is made in the Alps, though. The styles have been replicated in mountain regions the world over, most notably in the American Northeast (big ups, New England!), so we’ll refer to them as Alpine & mountain cheeses interchangeably.
You know what we love most about these cheeses? They’re made with the milk of cows who graze decadent mountain pasture all summer, then are received back in their valley hometowns with a huge party. The cows are adorned with flower crowns and gold bells before being paraded down the mountain and fawned over by the village people, who rely on these cows for their livelihood, not to mention the food that sustains them through frigid winters.
Literally, they throw their well-fed cows a big parade. We have so much to learn from these people.
The practice is called transhumance—moving cows up the mountain steadily as the snow melts in spring, to guarantee they’re grazing the lushest, most verdant pastures (throwing a party for your cows is just called being a badass). Transhumance has been practiced since at least the twelfth century, when a ton of the name-controlled cheeses we eat today got their starts. Comté, #1 cheese crush of the shop, dates back to 1115! And the earliest records of Raclette go as far back as 1291. With this kind of history, it’s no wonder the government gets involved in regulating what makes a Comté a Comté. They keep a close eye on process, to ensure the cheeses are being made the same way today that conditions necessitated back in the day—and to distinguish those doing it old-school from larger, industrial cheese makers.
Cows need to be milked every day, so to avoid costly shleps down the mountain, chalets were built at different elevations to make cheese with the fresh milk. To get proper name recognition nowadays, milk must be immediately cooked the day it was milked, usually in copper pots over open wood fires. Both milk and curds are cooked this way, which creates the notes of caramel, brown butter and brown sugar present in mountain cheeses. It was also a major pain to lug bags of salt up the mountain back then, so these cheeses boast a pliable meltability and sweetness due to lack of sodium.
Without salt, the cheeses need to be made in enormous wheels of up to 20lbs. to provide stability—the higher surface-area-to-volume ratio causes greater moisture evaporation, and the resulting drier cheeses are hardier, easier to preserve, age, and carry with on the journey.
Aside from the basics, the government regulations vary from cheese to cheese. Most of them require that cows eat only dried meadow hay during winter months in the valley. Raclette can only be made with the milk of grass-fed cows who never ate from silos. Vacherin Mont d’Or has to be made with the milk of Montbéliard cows that has been thermised, a temp below pasteurization that allows more flavors to come through. To be called Abondance, a cheese must be set in a concave mold and aged on spruce planks, and to be called Comté, each cow is required to have at least one hectare of grazing land to itself (approximately two football fields)!
And within each of those styles, there is tons more variation among the mountain communities—which country they are in (the Alps include France, Switzerland, Italy, & Austria, among others), what plants are native to the region, whether the cows grazed north or south-facing slopes, and the soil conditions. This one class of cheese allows as much room for complexity as wine, and they boast a range of possible flavor profiles to match. From toasted nuts, burnt butter and a garden of floral notes, to savory wild herbs and even a pronounced meatiness, these cheeses contain just about every word I think of when imagining a perfect food. And luckily for you guys, we have a few pointers on how to draw out all this nuance.
Food—We eat these cheeses in winter because of when and how they’re made, but also because they are damn good melters. Stateside standards like mac ‘n’ cheese, grilled cheese, & fondue perform beautifully with Alpines, but they also shine in their hometown classics like an oozy Raclette wheel melted by an open fire, or the creamy, funky potato bacon gratin they call Tartiflette.
Potatoes show up all over Alpine preparations, so we don’t think you’d be crazy to nosh on some Gruyère with a French fry, or even to melt some on top of potato chips. For pairings, you can play off the flavors present in a mountain cheese—toasted nuts, salty caramels, browned butter and fresh wild herbs are all great matches. And on the flip side, you can choose foods that present opposite qualities, for balance—tangy mostarda or chutney, zesty marmalades & relishes, pickles, or anything else acidic is going to lighten up a rich, sweet-cream piece of mountain cheese. And perhaps one of the easiest and simplest pairings is Comté and apple slices—a duo often requested by our shop owner’s daughter in her school lunches. Try brown-bagging some for yourself tomorrow! You’ll be thanking us later.
Drink—As it goes with food, these mountain cheeses pair best with warming winter libations. Oaky chardonnays match the rich, woodsy tones in Alpines, while Reisling brightens the sweet notes of cooked sugar. Doppelbocks and porters employ hops & roasty malts to wake up notes of grass and toasted hazelnuts. It’s customary to do shots of a fruity schnapps with your mountain cheese courses in Switzerland, and given how well apples go with Comté, we think the Pommeau aperitif from Carr’s Cider House would make a great substitute (ya know, if you don’t keep schnapps lying around). For bold cheeses like Winnimere (a Vermont-made riff on Vacherin Mont d’Or), we think the distinctive tannins from its belt of local bark go great with a peaty Scotch or rye whiskey.
We carry an array of mountain cheeses on our shelves at any given time, so be sure to ask your monger for their current recommendations. Here’s a brief list of some of our favorites, grouped by their maker or importer:
Heublemen, Nufenen, Maxx Extra, Challerhocker: These heavy-weights come to us from Columbia Cheese and the man, the legend Adam Moskowitz. Adam travels to the Alps constantly to taste wheels in the Jura mountains. The wheels we get from him are always bursting with flavor and dense, creamy interiors. They are rich and fudgey, yet often peppered with crunchy crystals of tyrosine, the amino acid protein left behind when milk proteins break down with age (in case you ever wondered why older cheeses have a crunch to them). Name-controlled and traditional, these are some of our oldest and most by-the-book Alpine cheeses.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve: One of the winningest cheeses in the history of the American Cheese Society, this take on Beaufort/Gruyère comes from Wisconsin’s Upland’s Cheese Company. It’s a little ironic for one of the best mountain cheeses made in the States to come from our country’s large swath of flatlands, but the two families who work the land at Upland’s have spent years molding their farm to meet the needs required by these Alpine styles. Aged up to two years, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve is only made with the summer milk of cows who are rotated daily to graze leafy, abundant fields along the hilly crest of Pleasant Ridge. They’ve also spent decades on selective crossbreeding of their closed herd, tweaking to suit the needs of the cheeses they make. The cream for Pleasant Ridge provides a perfect ratio of fat to protein before it even hits the cooking vat, so it’s no wonder the finished product is so rich & luxurious. Crunchy yet smooth, sweet-tart and just a touch savory, this cheese tastes downright professional.
Springbrook Tarentaise, Tarentaise Reserve, & Raclette: Springbrook Farm’s cheese program is headed by Jeremy Stephenson, who lived in Europe and trained with French cheesemakers for several years before attempting his Vermont-made take on the classic Tarentaise & Raclette styles. It’s fair to say he’s been successful, with the cheeses garnering several awards from the ACS (including Best in Show) over the years. His Tarentaise Reserve, an extra-aged version of the younger Tarentaise, has become such a commodity in the American cheese world that we often sit on waiting lists for it for months. Crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet, with a beautiful concave rind to mimic its French parentage, this is easily one of the best cheeses made in America today.
Consider Bardwell Rupert: Another ACS winner, slightly different than the other cheeses listed here, Rupert has a deep, warm goldenrod paste, with a drier and cleaner texture that boasts savory, umami flavors–on his last visit to the shop, Consider Bardwell’s cheesemaker Chris Gray told us that lately, it’s been reminding him of red miso. A great pick Alpine lovers looking to mix it up.
Jasper Hill’s Alpha Tolman & Winnimere: Also a Best in Show winner and also a step apart from the nutty, fudgy wheels on this list, Winnimere is Jasper Hill’s take on Jura mountain classics like Försterkäse or Vacherin Mont d’Or (cheeses that date back to Louis XV’s time). This coral-rinded wheel is girdled by spruce bark harvested in Vermont’s forests, and washed with VT’s coveted Hill Farmstead Beer. Already such decadence in its pedigree, and we haven’t even gotten to the cheese pudding that lies within! Winnimere is best eaten with the top cut off and a small spoon sticking out—we encourage folks to scoop this milky velvet substance right out of the bark. Full of meaty earth & dank savory tones, we love this cheese beside beef jerky or candied bacon, or with a nice glass of Scotch.
And the Alpha Tolman aint too shabby, either—a riff on Appenzeller, boasting notes of caramelized onion and dried fruit, this cheese shines next to cornichons, whole grain mustard, and påté.
Robinson Farm’s A Barndance, Prescott, & Robinson Swiss: The hills of central Massachusetts may not be as steep as those in the Alps, but that doesn’t stop the Robinson Family from trying their hand at French classics like Comté and Abondance. The farm in Hardwick, MA has been in the family for four generations, but it wasn’t until Pam & Ray took over that they decided to start crafting unique cheeses for retail consumption. What started as a project to add value to their raw milk has since morphed into a family love affair with mountain cheeses. And while their wheels don’t taste the same as those from the Alps, they follow the most important principles of grassfed, raw and organic fresh milk. Their cheeses have a cleaner, smoother, and more firm paste, full of tiny holes and grassy, sweet flavors that come right out of the bucolic Massachusetts countryside.
L’Etivaz Gruyere: A new addition to our wall, this cheese is named for a village in Switzerland where 76 revolutionary families reside. These are the folks who, in 1930, rebelled against the government’s cheese regulations and started their village’s own designation of origin. L’Etivaz is essentially 19th-century Gruyère—the creators felt that cheesemakers were getting too lax in their production of the stuff, and needed to follow the stricter guidelines required 100 years ago. A little creamier, less sharp, and far nuttier than a standard Gruyère, this huge wheel offers a special taste of history.
Marcel Petit Forte St. Antoine Comté: Last, but furthest from least, the Marcel Petit Comté is easily one of our most consistent, complex, and elegant cheeses. After being made in the mountains, wheels of Comté are selected by affineurs who then monitor their aging process. Marcel Petit has revolutionized affinage, by using a WWII military bunker in the French countryside, and by having tasters monitor the wheels’ flavor profiles daily and only pulling them when their flavor is at its peak. They spend at least a year in the cool, damp fort, fortified by concrete walls and nestled into a grassy hillside. Tasters turn the wheels and care for them, tracking their progress in search of the perfect marriage of fruity and nutty, creamy and sharp, herbal and floral.
The wheels Marcel Petit deems worthy of export go through one more test of perfection by our importer, Essex St. Cheese, who started their whole business around importing only the best wheels of this specific Comté. By the time it gets to our counter, we are undoubtedly giving you a damn-near-perfect piece of cheese.
And these are just our most commonly stocked mountain cheeses—we get a smattering of exciting Alpines throughout the winter so be sure to always ask what’s in stock if you’re a fan of the nutty-fudgey-creamy-fruity. Willow Hill Farm’s Butternut makes rare but delightful appearances, and we try to keep Cobb Hill’s Ascutney Mountain around as much as we can. Right now is the best time to get our largest selection of Alpines—challenge yourself to try them all!