Also known as mountain cheese or alpage cheese, an alpine cheese is made in the mountains from the milk of animals who have grazed in high mountain pastures yielding a big, rich, complex flavor. Alpine cheese can refer to Swiss, French or Italian cheese made in the Alps. You can also find cheese in the U.S. that is made in the alpine style.
Centuries-old traditions and methods ensure that alpine cheeses are unique from other types of cheese. The complex flavors of alpine cheeses are like no other, making alpine cheese a favorite of cheesemongers. The flavors and aromas of alpine cheeses are typically described as nutty, fruity, spicy, floral, herbal, grassy and/or buttery.
Where does all this flavor come from? The skilled hands of the cheesemakers, traditional recipes perfected over centuries and high-quality, high butterfat milk from cows grazing mainly on lush, seasonal plants and grasses found up and down the mountainside.
In the spring, the cows start nibbling on grass in the lower pastures where the winter snow has already melted. By late summer, they have been herded to higher elevations and are munching on high mountain pastures. When autumn arrives with the threat of winter, the animals eat their way back down the mountain. This process is known as transhumance.
The Cheesemaking Process
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.
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.
Typical characteristics of alpine cheese also include:
- Consistent quality, due to strictly regulated production standards
- Typically a semi-firm to hard texture with a dense paste
- Natural brushed/rubbed rind
- Large sized wheels (typically weighing a minimum of about 20 pounds)
- Usually made from raw cow's milk. The milk is typically heat treated (cooked), but not fully pasteurized
- Alpine cheeses typically melt well, making them ideal for fondue and grilled cheese sandwiches
- Mountain cheeses often have holes, or "eyes"
Examples of Alpine or Mountain Cheese
Here are some of the varieties of alpine or mountain cheeses:
- Vacherin Fribourgeois
- Hoch Ybrig
- Bra D'uro
- Fontina Val D'Aosta
- Centovalli Ticino
The Holes in the Cheese
(While some have no 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. 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 cheeses tend to go well with more mild, younger red wines like a Beaujolais cru, or drier white wines like Sancerre.