Alpine cheese, also known as mountain cheese or alpage cheese, refers to a style of cheesemaking rather than one variety. The name applies to Swiss, French, Austrian, or Italian cheeses made in the Alps. You can also find cheese made in the U.S. in the alpine style, such as the generically named Swiss cheese made in the style of Emmenthal.
Origin: European Alps
Texture: Typically semi-firm to firm
Flavor profile: Varies widely; reflects terroir of grazing animals
Famous varieties: Comtè, Gruyère, Emmenthal, Fontina, Asiago
What Is Alpine Cheese?
Centuries-old traditions and methods yield cheeses with complex flavors and rich texture. A favorite of cheesemongers, alpine cheeses can be described as nutty, fruity, spicy, floral, herbal, grassy and/or buttery. Alpine cheeses tend to go well with more mild, younger red wines like a Beaujolais cru, or drier white wines like Sancerre.
Typical characteristics of alpine cheese include:
- Consistent quality, due to strictly regulated production standards
- Semi-firm to firm texture with a dense paste, though some varieties fall into the soft-ripened and semi-soft categories
- Natural washed/brushed/rubbed rind
- Large wheels (typically weighing at least 20 pounds)
- Unpasteurized cow's milk (heat-treated, but not fully cooked)
- Melting quality
- Holes or "eyes"
How Alpine Cheese Is Made
In a process known as transhumance, cows literally graze their way up and over mountains, starting in lower elevations in the spring, spending late summer in high mountain meadows, then trailing their way back down in the fall. With the variable microclimates and wide range of grasses throughout the Alps, the cow's milk exhibits distinctive terroir, resulting in cheeses with significantly different flavor profiles. Many do share a creamy meltability, however.
Cheesemakers follow their herds, making cheese on the spot in strategically located huts using traditional recipes perfected over centuries. They heat the milk in giant copper pots, often over open fires, cooking and pressing the resulting curds to reduce the moisture content. For ease of transport, alpine cheeses generally come to market in often giant wheels. Gruyère and Comté, two of the more well-known varieties, measure about 40 inches in diameter and weigh 65 to 85 pounds. Wheels of Emmenthal, the cheese known to many Americans as "Swiss cheese," can weigh up to 220 pounds.
Swiss and related cheeses display holes, the by-product of CO2-producing bacteria called Propionibacterium shermannii, which thrive in the low-salt, low-acid environment of alpine cheeses. These bacteria contribute to the distinctive flavor. The bacteria release the gas as they digest the curd early in the cheese-making process, and as the cheese hardens the gas bubbles become permanent holes.
With so many varieties under the "alpine cheese" umbrella, you can often simply swap one for another. Most of the fresher cheeses melt well, so you can use Emmenthal or Gruyère or fontina or raclette or taleggio cheese pretty much interchangeably; the flavors will differ, though, so go ahead and choose your favorite.
Alpine cheeses are among the world's meltiest. Use them for fondue, grilled cheese, French onion soup, pasta, pizza, and anywhere you want gooey cheese goodness. They also make a good semi-soft cheese selection for a cheese plate. Alpine cheeses become firmer and more granular as they age, making them less suited for melting but even more flavorful for straight snacking.
Store washed-rind alpine cheeses wrapped in parchment or wax paper in the deli drawer of your refrigerator. They need to breathe, so wrap them a bit loosely or store them in a plastic container with holes for airflow. They should last this way for several weeks. If you notice mold, cut it off right away. If the cheese seems to be drying out, you can set a damp paper towel underneath it. You can also store many alpine cheeses at room temperature for a few days if it doesn't exceed 70 degrees.
It's safe to freeze alpine cheeses, but the texture will be affected, so it's recommended only if you intend to cook with the cheese. For ease of use, you can grate the cheese first then freeze it in a zip-top plastic freezer bag or an airtight container.
Alpine Cheese Recipes
Turn to alpine cheese when you want to melt it for a classic fondue, a quesadilla, in scrambled eggs, in a grilled cheese sandwich, or in a creamy, satisfying dip.
Types of Alpine Cheese
Look for specific varieties of alpine cheese in the specialty case at the grocery store or in a cheese shop. The Swiss cheese purchased at the deli counter or found among the prepackaged slices resembles Emmenthal, but it lacks the subtleties of a true alpine cheese. If you like this style of cheese, look for true Emmenthal or Gruyère.
Italian alpine cheeses include the widely recognized Asiago, fontina, and taleggio cheese, a variety made at the end of the fall grazing season. Reblochon may be the most recognizable of the French alpine cheeses; this washed-rind cheese has its own AOC designation. Comtè is another French alpine cheese commonly available in the U.S. Austrian alpine cheeses get collectively called bergkäse; they are not as widely available outside of their home region, but well-stocked cheese shops may carry some.
Can You Eat the Rind?
Alpine cheeses generally have a washed or natural rind, which you can safely eat. However, natural rinds such as that found on Asiago and other harder, grating cheeses may be too dry to really be palatable. Savvy cooks like to throw them into the pot to flavor sauces and soups, however. Washed rinds such as with Gruyère can add to the enjoyment of the cheese, but it really comes down to personal preference.