What is Alpine style cheesemaking and what makes it unique?
December 16, 2022
If you’ve ever tried one of our A2/A2 artisanal cheeses, there’s probably a word you associate with it. Maybe “sharp” comes to mind when you think of our Dutch feta. Or perhaps “sweet” best describes our Dutch Country Swiss. Whatever the word, our artisanal cheeses aren’t just delicious. They’re made in homage to Alpine-style cheeses – a special type of cheesemaking with a long and distinctive history.
Alpine-style cheesemaking refers both to the region where this style of cheesemaking originated (for our farmers at Alpine Heritage Creamery, the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps) and the particular practices followed to make cheese. Given the range of the Alps region, consisting of portions of Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, and Austria, there are literally hundreds of different types of “alpine-style” cheeses. However, all of them share some distinct characteristics.
First, alpine cheeses gained their unique flavor in part from the practice of transhumance. Through this process, cows were released from their barns at the end of winter, and set to roam the mountainsides. And roam they did! They began in lower elevations in the spring, moved to higher elevations in the summer, and then returned back in the fall.
All of this roaming had a profound effect on the flavor of Alpine cheeses. Because the cows traveled across so many different microclimates, and encountered such diverse forage, it quite literally transformed their milk. In fact, milk from Alpine cheeses have been found to have 10x the amount of microorganisms as milk produced in the valley below the mountain range.
Simply Grassfed's cheese absolutely follow these practices. Our animals are pasture raised and are 100% grass fed. They graze in diverse pastures in the warmer months and are fed dry pasture in the colder months. The forage changes with the weather and the season, giving our cheeses a distinct flavor.
However, alpine-style cheese is also distinguished by the particular methods of cheesemaking. Cheesemakers followed the herds in the summer, making cheese in portable huts. Not only was this strenuous work, but it also created significant limitations. In many cheesemaking processes, salt is used to dry the curds. However, salt was difficult to transport up and down the mountainous ranges. Therefore, Alpine cheesemakers developed different methods.
After forming the cheese into curds, some cheesemakers would cut the cheese into small pieces (sometimes the size of rice grains!) and cooked them in a large pot, over a high temperature, for long periods of time. This was a strenuous process that required near-constant stirring and observation. After this was completed, they then pressed the cheese into molds to extract extra moisture, flipping and brushing with brine over several days.
This process created two of the most distinctive characteristics of alpine cheese: a “nutty” flavor (due to the low amount of salt) and a smooth, elastic texture with a hard rind. To maximize its transportability, alpine-style cheese was also made in huge wheels that could be carried back down the mountain and stored for long periods of time. These wheels could be enormous – a wheel of Emmenthal cheese (what we know as “swiss”) could weigh up to 220 pounds!
Another element of alpine-style cheese? The presence of holes, or “eyes”, in many types, such as swiss. Because the cheese is made from raw milk, the healthy bacteria are preserved – including Propionibacterium shermanii, the specific bacteria that causes eyes in the cheese. This bacteria feeds on lactic acid and produces carbon dioxide in turn, resulting in the distinctive appearance of Swiss cheese.
Since we do not have the limitation of carrying salt up the mountain, Simply Grassfed's cheese are NOT cooked. In fact, they are raw, only heated to less than 102F to create a good environment for culturing. But, the rest of the process is very similar to Alpine cheesemaking, including making cheese in huge wheels.
Modern cheesemakers aren’t faced with the same regional limitations, but alpine-style cheese can still be made in many different places. Farmers who follow rotational grazing practices mimic the system of transhumance, moving their cattle frequently, exposing them to a diversity of forage, and increasing the microbial life within their milk. Likewise, certain cheesemaking techniques - like using a limited amount of salt - creates cheese that follows the recipes and traditions that have been passed down.
Alpine cheese-making is a process of innovation and wisdom - one that our cheesemakers at Alpine Heritage Creamery are proud to follow. It’s a set of customs that isn’t limited to a geographic region, but represents a way of managing the land, following animal patterns, and creating nourishing food that can be followed anywhere. We prioritize both our heritage and the innovation that kept alpine cheese techniques alive, emulating these through new flavors and styles today.
We hope knowing the history of alpine cheese makes you love our artisanal cheeses even more! Which ones are your favorite? We’d love to hear from you.