Alpine Cheeses (Mountain Cheeses) are made from the milk of animals that have grazed on the grasses and plants of high mountain pastures and give the resulting cheeses a distinct, rich flavor. There are centuries old traditions and recipes that follow specific rules and regulations in order to be called “Alpine Cheese”. Most people are familiar with the basic “Swiss Cheese”, but it’s actually much more detailed than that. Swiss is just a category of Alpine Cheese; it can actually be Swiss, French, or Italian.
It’s all about something called transhumance grazing. It’s a centuries old cycle that begins in the Spring when the animals begin grazing on all the lush, seasonal plants on the lower mountain pastures, and as it warms through summer, the shepherd and the flock follow the plants to higher elevations. Once autumn arrives with the threat of snow and chill, the flock eats their way back down the mountain. The cycle repeats itself year after year.
Why is the elevation important? The different plants at different elevations make every batch of cheese unique. Many of these lush pastures are in remote corners of the mountains, and the herders build cheese-making huts (Chalets) at various elevations so they could make cheese at any point in their process of grazing without carrying the milk all the way back down the mountain. Too much agitation and jostling can cause ill effects in the milk. So all the cheese-making ingredients and tools stay in the various huts along the mountain, ready for the herder to make their batches and leave them for aging. They would make larger wheels in big batches so they could bring the sturdy wheels back down the mountain to market.
What’s with the holes? Not all Alpine cheese has holes (eyes), but they are one of the most recognizable visual features. The holes are created early in the process by C02 producing bacteria that thrive in the low salt/low acid mix of Alpine Cheese. As the cheese hardens those holes produced by the C02 gas become permanent.
So, what ARE Alpine cheeses? There are quite a number of them:
And the list continues. Many of the above cheeses share similar characteristics such as:
- Semi-hard texture
- Natural rubbed (or brushed) rind
- Larger wheel (usually weighing around 65-80lb on average)
- Holes (eyes)
- Very meltable & elastic quality (ideal for fondue)
- Sweet, nutty flavor, usually low in salt
What should I pair it with? Alpine cheeses tend to pair well with younger, lighter wines such as Beaujolais, because of the subtle grassy/plant flavors in the cheese. If you pair it with too strong of a wine, you’ll lose some of those complex cheese flavors. From that starting point, explore! Everyone experiences taste differently, and experimenting with different combinations is the best way to find the pairing you love.