Monday, January 16, 2006

Mountain Cheese: January 15-31

Our January adoration of mountain cheeses is about more than winter instinct to consume as much firm, beefy, eggy, eminently cook-able cheese as possible. Mind you: this instinct is operative, for what is more appropriate in gray, sleety dreck than a copper pot lazily bubbling with melty ropes of Gruyere, Appenzeller and Hoch Ybrig? Throw in crusty hunks of baguette, a bottle of Beaujolais, a group of moderately drunken friends, and you’re in business.

But it’s more than our animal impulse to hunker down and eat rich foods. It’s also our desire to have the finest cheese at any given moment, in season, perfectly illustrating the potential of its type or style.

When we say mountain cheese, we’re talking primarily about (duh) cheese made in the mountains, specifically the Alpine spine running between France and Switzerland. These are the granddaddies of cheese: wheels typically run between 70 and 150 pounds, are made of unpasteurized cows’ milk, and, in their finest incarnation, are produced from the milk of summer-gorged cows browsing their way across the alpage, or alpine, fields dotted with tiny grasses, wildflowers and abundant herbs.

The history of these cheeses falls at a brilliant intersection between practicality and pleasure. Small, remote, mountain towns struggled with a limited area of farmable land, and clearing the cows from valleys was essential to maximize the summer growing season. As snow receded, villagers and their cattle followed the lush grasses up the mountainsides, a migratory journey continued to this day and known as transhumance.

These remote and seasonal conditions are key to understanding the cheesemaking process that yields alpine cheese. Long winters challenge the ability to create enough food, yes, but particularly enough food to last until the growing season begins anew. In the case of fresh milk, perhaps the most perishable food of all, more cheese is no help unless it can last for many months. Thus, the demand to produce age-able cheeses.

Grazing and milking quickly evolved into a communal process, maximizing available milk and dividing the intense labor demands of cheesemaking. More milk makes for more cheese, or in this case, bigger cheese. Big size is a big part of lifespan, but a big, wet cheese will not last. How to produce a firm cheese, with less water? One that would not spoil over many months of aging? The answer lay in a two-step process of cutting the cheese curds into tiny bits, and cooking the curds at temperatures of 122 to 129 degrees Farenheit to expel as much whey (liquid) as possible. Afterwards, large wheels were further pressed to exude additional moisture.

By summers’ end, each small cooperative faced the return journey with only a few, very large wheels, more easily transported than hundreds of small rounds, and better designed to last through the winter.

Considering the similar cheesemaking conditions, the consistent use of cows, and the comparable techiques, it is no surprise that mountain cheeses share texture and flavor characteristics. And here we find the pleasure.

Look for large wheels with a firm, somewhat elastic paste that dissolves creamily in the mouth. Many are pockmarked with olive pit-sized holes. Relatively low acid means many of these cheeses will not taste “sharp,” but rather, “sweet.” (Remember that weird nutty sweetness of Swiss cheese when you were a kid?) The taste is like toasted hazelnuts, fried eggy, with a hearty dose of brown butter, beef jerky, and fruitiness, as in the fermented fruit of wine.

A fascinating story, but why are we pushing these big guns in January? Beyond the predilection for fondue, it’s because these summer-made cheeses come into season, into their finest form, in the dead of winter. Most are aged nine to twenty months. All are made between May and September. Meaning younger wheels produced in the Summer of 2005 are just coming into their own. Older wheels produced in the Summer of 2004 are at their apex. Some of these summer productions are so exceptional they warrant specific names. For example, Beaufort is Beaufort. Beaufort d’Alpage may only be so called when it is produced from the summer milk of Tarine and Abondance cows that graze on the alpage.

There are exceptions, and you’ll know them immediately by their soft, bulging, weeping interior. Clearly, these little guys are not firm, not big, and you may correctly deduce, not cooked or pressed. They are seasonal aberrations, and are special because they are made with the milk of these alpine roving cows, during those months down in the valleys, inside, eating hay. Their milk is fattier and their cheese is made for immediate consumption. Look for the hallmark Vacherin Mont d’Or, bound in spruce bark. Its year-round Swiss imitator, exceptional in its own right, Forsterkase, and the Vermont interpretation of Forsterkase, from Jasper Hill Farm, known as Winnemere (and washed not just in brine, but in brine infused with a Lambic-style ale brewed from ambient yeasts in the cheese cellar.)

What really blows us away is to line up five or seven of these cheeses, side by side, and taste them blind. It’s apparent that they are all closely related, but the nuance and distinction between them is remarkable. The aged Appenzeller, which lolls in a vat of herb-infused brine, next to the distinctly fruity note of Hoch Ybrig, thanks to regular washings in white wine-infused brine. The aggressive crunch of meaty, cave aged Gruyère is classic for cooking or eating straight-up. The French give us sisters that taste like diametric opponents: sweet, mellow Comté soothes before a bit of peppery, vegetal Abondance. And though central Vermont is hardly alpine, nascent cheesemakers Thistle Hill (Tarentaise, note the pun on the breed of cow typically used for French mountain cheeses) and Cobb Hill (Ascutney Mountain, it may not be an Alp, but is a local mountain near Hartland Four Corners) have harnessed a cheesemaking tradition that dates back to the first century B.C. and produced remarkable interpretations of Abondance.

We invite you to experience what 2,000 years of history can make with pristine milk and a little practice.