Alpine cheese refers to any cheese that is made using methods similar to those made in the Alps… Think Gruyere, Emmenthaler, Comte and such. These cheeses are characterized by their firm, yet elastic texture, low salt content, and super melt-ability (yes, that’s the technical term). They have a wide array of flavors, ranging from fresh cut grass to chocolate to toasted hazelnuts depending on the forage of the animals (usually cows) whose milk was used to make them.
Alpine style cheeses have a unique and incredible history. Scholars argue about how long they have been made, but the Greek philosopher and historian Strabo wrote in the 1st century AD about amazing large format cheeses from the Alps being traded as far south as the Mediterranean. (for more incredible info on this subject we recommend Paul Kinstedt’s amazing book ‘Cheese and Culture‘.) We definitely know that Alpine-style cheeses developed in a unique historical context that was about community, climate, survival, and human ingenuity working in concert with nature.
People living in Alpine regions practiced ‘transhumance’, i.e. the process by which cowherds brought all the cows in a village or community up the mountain to the ‘alpage’ or alpine pastures in the summer months. During the summer, the cowherds would collect all the milk from these larger herds and make large cheeses that would then feed the community through the winter. This was a way for people to pool their resources and take advantage of the fertile valleys for growing crops and use the marginal farmland of the mountainside to combine their milk to make large cheeses.
So what makes Alpine-style cheese different?
- Alpine style cheeses are smooth and elastic in texture due to their slow rate of acidification and because the curds are pressed during the cheesemaking process. Because they are not acidic (like cheddar) they are more elastic and meltable.
- They are BIG! Wheels of Alpine-style cheese made in the U.S. range from 10 to 30 pounds. In Europe they are even larger! Wheels of Comte typically average 80 pounds and wheels of Gruyere are around 70 pounds.
- They are low in salt – salt was hard to come by in the Alps in the 1st century (and even harder to haul up mountainsides!) so these cheeses were created to be long aged, but low in salt.
In the kitchen they’re chameleons, making gluttonous grilled cheese, mac and cheese magic, fabulous fondue, and gratuitously good gratins. Just slice, grate, and add to your favorite dishes for a butterfatty kick in the pants that is sure to delight your palate!