Cheese has been described, in Clifton Fadiman’s memorable phrase, as “milk’s great leap toward immortality.” It’s a perfect definition. After all, cheese is simply a way to prolong the life of this highly perishable product. I use the word “simply,” but in fact there’s a wealth of skill, artistry and sheer magic that lies behind the extraordinary process of transforming milk into cheese.
When people ask how I came to write a book about the wonderful world of Swiss cheese, I always come back to the magic. To me it’s nothing short of miraculous that you can start with fresh milk, and conjure from it a seemingly unending variety of products ranging from tiny, freshly-formed white cheeses to grand loaves of extra-hard, extra-aged Sbrinz at the other. Wedged in between are bloomy-rinded Tommes, fragrant Raclette and Piora, unctuous Vacherin Mont-d’Or, sweetly salty blue-veined cheeses, the huge extended family of alpine cheeses and many, many more.
That the Swiss are masters of the cheese-making art is hardly news; they’ve had several centuries of practice. Traveling around this tiny landlocked country today, you can easily see the extent to which cheese remains at the heart of Swiss culture: think cappuccino-colored cows grazing in manicured meadows, alpine chalets with copper vats warming over wood fires, milk churns lined up outside back doors of village dairies, autumn festivals with stacks of cheese and flower-crowned cows and well-furnished cheese counters in even the humblest village store.
Swiss grand dames
Everyone knows (and many have attempted to copy) the grand old hard cheeses like Gruyère and Emmentaler; what’s less well known is that, alongside these Golden Oldies, there’s now a wealth of novel Swiss cheeses coming to market. The catalyst for change came when the Schweizerische Käse-Union, which controlled and regulated every aspect of Swiss cheese making and marketing, was closed down in the late 1990s. This caused a seismic shift in Switzerland’s cheese landscape. Michel Beroud, a talented cheese maker in Rougemont, near Gstaad, refers to the post-deregulation period as “après la liberation.” Now a newly liberated generation of artisans is experimenting with varieties that go way beyond the hard cheeses traditionally associated with Switzerland.
There’s never been a better time to take off on your own voyage of discovery. Start by reacquainting yourself with the established varieties (Gruyère, Emmentaler, Sbrinz, Appenzeller) that have made Switzerland’s reputation. Since deregulation, they have a new spring in their step and a rediscovered pride in their identity. In the past 10 years, many Swiss cheeses have obtained Appellation Contrôlée status, which gives their names much-needed – and long overdue – protection.
Strictly seasonal cheeses
Then you can explore the summer alpine cheeses – at last count, there were over 1,200. Made in tiny quantities, many are simply named after the alp where they were born. These are large, hard, generally long-matured cheeses with superb, complex flavors, made in small highland chalets between May and September from the milk of cows that graze on rich, flower-speckled summer pastures.
Fall signals the opening of the Vacherin Mont-d’Or season. In a world where everything we eat seems to be available all year round and where our food is increasingly an anonymous commodity undistinguished by links to either place or season, this delectable washed-rind cheese, made only between Aug. 15 and March 31 in the Vallée de Joux in the Jura Mountains of canton Vaud, is a standout. The pale wooden box in which it’s sold is slightly smaller than the finished product, so when the cheese is deftly coaxed into its container, the pinkish-gold crust erupts into a sort of ecstatic, voluptuous wave. The spruce bark that surrounds it gives a gentle but not overly pungent aroma; the flesh is luscious and silky, like heavy cream that’s come of age.
Cheesemaker to watch
Finally, make a point of seeking out some of Switzerland’s new wave cheeses. Watch for the name Willi Schmid. This innovative cheese-maker opened his own tiny dairy in Lichtensteig in eastern Switzerland’s Toggenburg barely five years ago and now makes more than 25 different cheeses. “Surely,” I asked him, “you can’t have created over 25 different cheeses in just five years?” He grinned, sheepishly. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted, “I created them all in about a month, right at the beginning. I figured I would make them all and stick with the ones that sold, and forget about the rest.” In the event they all found a ready market. Today, Schmid has a job keeping abreast of demand.
My absolute favorite among his cheeses is Jersey Blue, a magnificent blue-veined cheese made from Jersey milk, similar in size and shape to a slightly lumpy Christmas pudding and enclosed in a thin, grayish, bloomy rind. When I tire of Jersey Blue (which is rare), I go for a semi-hard cheese called Bergmatter that Schmid makes only in winter. With its deep brown, wonky, wrinkly rind, it is every inch the cheese for enthusiasts: no mechanized process could ever produce something so delightfully anarchical, so utterly unique. The rind conceals a smooth interior, buttery yellow with a rash of pea-sized holes. The smell takes you straight up into the hayloft, with gentle wafts of manure thrown in. In the mouth, it’s smooth, gently yielding, with unfolding layers of rich, buttery, long-lasting flavor.
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.
Caroline Hostettler imports a selection of Switzerland‘s finest cheeses, including some by Willi Schmid.
Top photo: Willi Schmid brushing a wheel of Bergmatter cheese.
Credit: Nikos Kapelis
Slide show credits: Nikos Capelis and Sue Style