Brr it’s cold. June and July are the time of darkness, when heaters are always on, and the winter dark seems endless.
This is the time for a special kind of cheese, something restorative on a cold day. A perfect time to bust out the Mountain, or Alpine, cheeses.
Big rounds of nutty gold, smooth, sometimes with holes, always with fruity sweetness, it’s as if the sun in summer pastures was captured in these cheeses, and carefully stored for release in the dark and cold of winter.
Gruyere, Emmental, Appenzeller, Fontina, Beaufort – these semi-hard styles emerged from Europe’s Alpine areas. Milk from cows grazed on high mountain meadows was made into large wheels of cheese in alpine huts by shepherds who transported them down to the valleys come winter.
But big cheeses need careful aging to stop them rotting so mountain herders heated the curds to release more whey and dry out the curd. This heating contributes to the smooth paste, and almost pliable texture of these cheeses, whilst the holes so distinctive in Swiss style cheeses come when bacteria produces bubbles of carbonic acid as the cheese warms up during aging.
So on a wintery day I assembled a collection of six mountain cheeses. Like a family reunion bringing together relations from across France, Switzerland and Italy, and whilst Beaufort was missing you’ll get a sense of how these cheeses are surely related but distinctly different.
Emmental – pretty and blonde this is the Heidi of cheeses, sweet, nutty and fairly straight forward, she is an easy eat that every one likes
Comté – Hailing from the Jura mountains in France, this is the sexy French cousin, toasty caramels and fruity nuts, she is deep and complex and lures you in with her golden smile
Meules des Alpes – Fresh from the farm in the French Rhone-Alpes, beneath his golden sun-kissed curls this cheese is beef-steak buff, with the salty sweat, woodsy earth of a hard day’s work in the field.
Gruyere – A sophisticated and urbane Swiss madam, she is hazelnut sweet and creamy smooth but with a hard-fought backbone and a hint of spicy sharpness to keep you on your toes
Schnebel Kuh – alluring and exotic she exudes personality – rich umami hits you with a boom, giving way to hot spicy notes that melt into a long fruity, nutty finish. Washed in herbs and spices this Swiss cheese is a star.
Fontina – The loud Italian from Piedmont, fruity yet robust, he hankered for the more masculine company of salami and pickles, as all bacon and burnt toast he just asked to be melted.
Warmed and full of sun from my cheeses and a Pinot Gris from Alsace, I started to plan what’s next with my leftover Mountain cheeses. Fondue, onion soup or quiche, or maybe melted over leeks, potatoes or bread?
These versatile cheeses are easy to cook with, or perhaps I’ll just pour another glass and taste just a little bit more, relaxing and remembering summer. Nice.