The new Swiss

Switzerland’s cheesemakers are crafting artisanal cheeses that go far beyond the deli cheese we think of as ‘Swiss’

BRATTLEBORO — To the cheese neophyte, Swiss cheese is that smooth, semi-firm, pale cheese with big holes in it and a kind-of-bland-kind-of-acidic flavor. And that's it. That's the cheese from Switzerland, right?

Well, not really.

That cheese is not even called “Swiss” in Switzerland, and it isn't called that in any respectable cheese shop, either. That cheese is called Emmentaler and, according to its Protected Designation of Origin - which protects the producers of food in the European Union there and, increasingly, around the world - that cheese must be made in Switzerland to be sold with that name.

We've all had Swiss cheese, so it must exist. So what is it, then?

Swiss Cheese is a type of cheese, rather than a singular cheese. It might look just like Emmentaler (or not, in the case of Alpine Lace lowfat industrial deli cheese). It might taste similar to Emmentaler.

But it does not have to be made in Switzerland, and chances are it's not. Swiss cheese is made in France, Finland, Norway (Jarlsberg!), Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and plenty of other exotic locales.

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Personally, I don't even consider Emmentaler Switzerland's most interesting cheese. I don't dislike it, but compared to all of the other gorgeous cheeses coming out of that country, Emmentaler can often fall a little flat.

Many cheese lovers are familiar with other Swiss classics such as Gruyère and Appenzeller, and those are fine examples of expert cheesemaking.

Ask any cheesemaker: making cheese is no way to get rich. It's labor-intensive in a way most jobs other than ditch-digging aren't. It's expensive: the proper care and feeding of dairy animals costs quite a bit of money.

It's undervalued: with industrialized agribusiness, the price of cheese in supermarkets is synthetically and shockingly low, and it drives down the value of handmade, farmstead cheeses. Why should anyone pay $24 per pound for a handmade, carefully aged cheddar when you can buy a plastic-encased brick of factory cheddar for $3?

Because of all of these considerations, and because a beautiful Switzerland equals a Switzerland where tourists come and spend money (sound familiar, Vermont?), the Swiss government gives farming and cheesemaking families money to help them survive and to encourage the farming life, which helps maintain Switzerland's abundance of natural beauty.

One problem with this subsidy is that, for many decades, cheesemakers were paid to make only Switzerland's iconic cheeses, such as Emmentaler, Gruyère and Appenzeller. For a talented cheesemaker, it might get boring making the same cheese year in and year out.

But in the last decade, the Swiss government has changed its policy.

This reversal is good news for anyone who loves cheese, because Switzerland is a country perfectly poised to make some of the best cheeses in the world, and its cheesemakers do.

The country benefits from its geography not only in location - it's the crossroads of Germany, France, and Italy - but in its specific terrain: verdant, low-lying pastures and high alpine fields with a unique array of grasses, flowers, and herbs upon which a hungry dairy animal may feast.

It's no mistake that, as a percentage of total weight of cheese produced, Switzerland produces more raw milk cheeses than France does. With such high-quality milk, it's best to allow the nuanced flavors of the flora to come through in the flavor of the cheese.

Now that cheesemakers are free to explore different cheesemaking recipes, and to develop the market for them, we in the United States are able to partake in an astonishing array of Swiss cheeses. Most are made of cows' milk, but there are a few notable varieties made of sheep's and goats' milk.

While many of the cheeses somewhat resemble Alpine-style cheeses such as Appenzeller and Gruyère - because both the geography and the regional culture created and continue to support these traditional recipes - they each have their own distinct qualities.

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Many of our favorite Swiss cheeses come to this country through the hard work and dedication of Caroline Hostettler. Based in Florida, Hostettler is a Swiss émigré who might be credited with the Swiss cheese renaissance in the United States.

Her import company, Quality Cheese, began as a simple, small operation: she personally visited high-end restaurants in New York City and elsewhere (think Picholine, Lespinasse, the French Laundry) to bring them cheeses aged by Rolf Beeler; her company now imports upwards of 60 cheeses from Switzerland.

Beeler, considered “The Pope of Cheese” in Switzerland, doesn't actually make cheese. He is an affineur, a person who carefully selects the best cheeses from particular cheesemakers, and then ages the cheeses to perfection. His Hoch-Ybrig is a favorite among cheesemongers across the United States.

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Lately, I've almost been obsessed with Swiss cheeses. They offer an ideal flavor profile for cold weather - think fondue - and are rich and complex enough to offer satisfaction, even after a few bites.

My absolute favorite right now is Urchrüter Bio. (When you see “Bio” on a European foodstuff, it means the item is organic.) Urchrüter is made in central Switzerland at the Chäsi Künten dairy using thermalized cows' milk.

The 10-pound wheels are washed in brine that contains wild herbs, and the herbs are also gently pressed into the rind, giving the cheese special flavor.

Aged for 2-3 months, this cheese is so complex and nuanced that my staff and I are still trying to name all the flavors we taste. So far, we've come up with toasted hazelnuts, brown butter, chicken broth, and celery. It is unlike any cheese I've ever had, and in a very good way.

One of the Rolf Beeler cheeses I can't get enough of right now is Bergfichte, or “mountain fir.” Aged by Beeler, it's made by another star on the Swiss scene, Willi Schmid, who found the centuries-old recipe and resurrected it, and thank goodness!

Made of raw Jersey cows' milk, the two-pound wheels are wrapped in fir bark that Schmid harvests himself; the cheese is washed in a special brine and the wheels are aged for just over 60 days.

As the cheese matures, it gets very soft and oozing in the center. Its flavor is bacony, pungent, and milky with distinct woodsy, slightly tannic notes from the wood band.

Bergfichte has been copied by a few different cheesemakers, but none have pulled it off quite like the partnership between Schmid and Beeler.

Another cheese I love is Seeländer Käse, also known as Seelander. Similar to medium-aged Appenzeller or Vacherin Fribourgeois, it's made in Canton Fribourg in western Switzerland, of raw cows' milk. No silage feeding of the animals is allowed.

Aged for at least five months and washed with a special brine, Seeländer Käse melts nicely and is a natural for fondue. Like its cousins, it has the great Alpine flavor profile of nutty, fruity and gently pungent, with a decent amount of spice.

Fricalin is another close relative to Vacherin Fribourgeois, also made in western Switzerland. Made of raw cows' milk and aged for up to six months, the rind is smeared with a special brine during the first four weeks of its maturation, and then for the remaining five months the wheels are cave-aged, giving extra nuance in flavor.

Fricalin is a hearty cheese with briny, brothy flavors and a sweet finish; it tastes similar to Appenzeller, but it's a little gentler.

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Heublumen (“hay blossoms”) is a favorite, coming from the Austrian side of Switzerland. This cheese is a direct result of the changes to the Swiss government's cheese subsidy.

The Stadelmann family used to sell their farm's milk to the Tilsiter consortium, which makes industrial Tilsit cheese. Now that that's over, the Stadelmanns can use their high-quality organic, raw milk to make Heublumen.

Weighing in at about 14 pounds, the wheels are washed in brine, then covered in local hay and native grasses and aged for at least four months. The grasses give the nutty, toasty cheese floral and alfalfa notes. It's a beautiful cheese to look at as well as eat. It melts nicely, too.

For folks who need extra power in their cheese, Scharfe Maxx is destined to be a favorite.

Made in northeastern Switzerland, this thermalized cows' milk cheese not only has extra cream added, making it a 60-percent FDM (fat in dry matter) cheese. It also has extra strength in pungency.

Picture the most pungent Gruyère, then bump it up a few notches. The 15-pound wheels are washed in a secret brine and are aged in a special cellar.

All that attention pays off! This is one spicy, nutty, smooth, and rich cheese!

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As you can see, I haven't even gotten to the sheep's and goats' milk cheeses from Switzerland. There are enough cows' milk cheeses to keep me busy and happy for quite some time!

I hope you, too, will explore the lovely creations coming from Switzerland, and you'll see that, just as Swiss Miss unfairly and completely misrepresents good hot chocolate, Swiss cheese is not just the acrid stuff with holes in it you find in the deli counter.

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