Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mountain Cheese Bloodlines

Mountain cheeses, no matter what country they’re made in, often share traits. They’re cousins, united by geography, climate and the techniques these harsh places demand. You can easily taste their bloodline connection.

Mountain cheeses can be big. In the hills among the Emme valley, two hundred plus pound wheels of Emmentaler, the original Swiss cheese, are produced. In the Jura region of France, northwest of Geneva, eighty pound wheels of Comté are turned out. Note that these are their finished weights, when they’re over a year old, after tremendous evaporation. When they’re first formed they can weigh up to fifty percent more.

Why are they so big? The answer, in large part, is winter. Mountain cheeses were traditionally a source of protein during cold months. They needed to be durable, they needed to last, since winter’s length was unpredictable. An eighty pound wheel of Comté will easily last until spring without spoiling. An eight ounce wheel of Camembert will not.

Mountain cheeses are sweet and floral. The sweetness is partly due to the bloodline process they share during making, where the curd is cooked. The floral aromas are thanks to the bloodline of the milk, which in the best cheeses comes from summer mountain pastures, called alpage in French. The L’Étivaz we sell is alpage. It is only made during summer, when the cows are in the mountains, eating an array of wildflowers the likes you and I haven’t seen since the Sound of Music. Imagine how good you’d feel if you ate flowers all day. That’s what happens to the cows. Their diet directly affects the flavor of the milk, which in turn flavors the cheese.

Most mountain cheeses melt beautifully, thanks to the curd cooking process. In spite of Courtney Love's advice to the contrary, I highly recommend it. Mountain macaroni and cheese is grand, and, grated on top of boiled potatoes and set under the broiler for a minute, these cheeses make a delicious bubbling cheese blanket. Try a Comté grilled cheese, made on buttered, griddled farm bread, with a grind of Tellicherry black pepper and maybe a couple thin slices of radish. If you have a vintage fondue set—available right now at your local Salvation Army for under a dollar, I'm sure—mountain cheeses are the ones you want to use.

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