Fundamentals of Cheese: All About Alpine Cheese

"Alpine" vs. "Alpine style" — what's the difference?

Classic cheese fondue. French onion soup. An oozing wheel of raclette scraped over a plate of ham, potatoes and pickles.

These hearty winter dishes, whose cheese involvement can best be described as “gooey,” have one major thing in common: they are all Alpine in nature.

Here, we examine the characteristics of true Alpine cheeses, which are some of the best melters in a chef’s arsenal.

Distinguishing Alpine Cheese from “Swiss” Cheese

Full stop: True Alpine cheeses are made in and around the Alps. These hearty, mountain cheeses are very much influenced by their mountainous environment, an element that most domestic cheeses that are made in an Alpine style can’t hope to fully replicate.

Alpine cheeses have many names and nuances, and may come from several different countries, all of whose borders intersect with the actual Alps, primarily Switzerland and France, but also Austria and Italy. Some of the most famous Alpine cheeses that you should get to know include Gruyère, Emmental, Raclette, Comté, Appenzeller and Beaufort.

“Swiss" cheese, on the other hand, as we are often introduced to the category in this country, is essentially a domestically produced knock-off of a classic Emmental. Whereas true Swiss Emmental has holes, or “eyes,” and a robust flavor that are both attributed to its particular cheesemaking techniques, generic “swiss” cheese often achieves these characteristics through artificial means.

A taste of a true Alpine cheese — that is, one that is actually made in the Alps according to traditional Alpine recipes and practices — should disabuse you of the notion that generic “swiss” is an acceptable substitute for the real thing, whether you are making elevated dishes in a fine dining environment, such as Chef Cyril Kabaoglu's super cheesy pommes aligot or just sandwiches as home.

Related reading:Fundamentals of Cheese: Understanding Cheddar


Characteristics of Alpine Cheeses & Alpine Culture

One of the most important flavor characteristics of Alpine cheeses comes from an ancient herding practice called alpage or transhumance, whereby cows were moved from their valley farms to high alpine pastures during the summer months for grazing. (Pop culture note: those “hills that were alive with the sound of music” may very well have referred to cowbells.)

This practice of allowing the herd to feed on wild, high altitude pastures creates a distinctive flavor among Alpine cheeses, as cows would inevitably end up grazing on more than just grass, including wildflowers, herbs, alliums, nuts and fruits. Raw, rather than pasteurized milk, is typically employed in Alpine cheeses to preserve as much of this rich flavor as possible. (Raw milk cheeses are permitted in the U.S. as long as the cheeses are aged at least 60 days.)

As salt was a scarce commodity during the development of many classic Alpine cheese recipes — the Alps are mostly landlocked, after all — Alpine cheeses are also less salty than many of their cheese counterparts. Their flavor is neither salty nor particularly tangy but decidedly robust, with both sweet and savory notes contributing to their overall flavor profile.

The meltability in Alpine cheeses is due to a cheesemaking practice whereby curds are “cooked” or heated before being pressed into molds, along with Alpine cheeses being some of the largest cheese wheels available. This important step lends a certain pliability to the cheeses, even as they age, which prevents them from becoming crumbly, and gives them a sort-of melting muscle memory when heat is applied in the future.

Cheeses with uncooked curds, such as cheddar, tend to separate and leak fat when melted.

Protected Name Designations for Alpine Cheeses

Within the European Union, many Alpine cheeses have protected name status with either an AOP or DOP designation, which basically indicate that those cheeses have regional distinctiveness, and cannot be made outside of the bounds of their defined regions and specific recipes. Since Alpine cheeses need to follow certain cheesemaking principles, like the cows needing to graze on high Alpine pastures in the summer, these cheeses likely should not be made anywhere else on earth.

Those name protections, however, do not necessarily extend automatically beyond the boundaries of the EU. Gruyère, for example, is name-protected as Le Gruyère AOP and limited to production in parts of Switzerland and France, however U.S. courts have determined that for domestic cheesemakers, the name “gruyere” has become genericized over time. That means that U.S. cheesemakers are permitted to use the name "gruyere" for cheeses that only have limited similarities to Le Gruyère AOP.

When seeking out true Alpine cheeses, especially those with iconic names, it’s important to read labels to make sure you’re getting the real thing.

True Alpine Cheese Versus “Alpine-Style”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t worthy, Alpine-style tribute cheeses made domestically, however, often by Swiss or French immigrants who brought recipes and techniques with them to the U.S..

While there aren’t a lot of (read: there are none) high Alpine pastures available to U.S. cheesemakers, herds may still be allowed the ability to graze on wild pastures, and there are many raw milk, cooked-cured Alpine style cheeses made domestically that are melty and flavorful. A few domestic Alpine style cheeses to look for include Uplands Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Spring Brook Farm’s Tarentaise, and Jasper Hill Farm’s Whitney.

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