The Rise of Alpine Cheese
Date: 17-01-2018 published by Nick Baines
Mountain cheeses carry incredibly complex, satisfying flavours and have recently become some of the most popular ingredients to be used by chefs everywhere from fancy restaurants, to curbside food trucks.
Alpine cheeses include those like Gruyere, Comte, Emmental and Fontina and one of the things that makes these cheeses so special, is the milk. As the snow begins to melt and retreat up the mountainside the cows slowly work their way up too, grazing on the fresh grasses as they go. As winter approaches, the cold conditions force the herd to descend, meaning through the year they enjoy a full season of varied grasses that grow at altitude. This type of grazing is known as transhumance grazing, and is one of the reasons the cows’ milk is so complex in flavour.
These mountain cheeses are usually characterized by a beautiful balance of sweet and savoury notes and traditionally come from the Alps in Europe, with France, Switzerland and Italy producing the most iconic varieties.
However, the growing popularity in alpine cheeses has led to British cheesemakers to develop cheeses that carry similar flavour profiles. 2017’s World Cheese Awards winner was actually Cornish Kernow, a cheese from the people behind Cornish Yarg who have produced this deeply complex Cornish cheese that opens up with a similar mix of sweet and savoury notes to those found in the more famous alpine cheeses on the continent.
While the 70’s kitsch dinner party classic fondue is undergoing a resurgence, it has paved the way for chefs to riff on the recipe. British fondues are often being made using Oggleshield, a cheese made by westcountry cheddar producer Montgomery. Some recipes are also turning away from using white wine in the mix, and opting for British ale complimented by extra mature cheddars.
Not all alpine cheeses are hard, cheddar-like wheels though. One of the most exciting seasonal cheeses in the curd calendar is Vacherin; a soft cows milk cheese. Vacherin is similar to a Camembert in appearance, though much thicker and carries a slightly yellow hue. The soft cheese is wrapped in spruce and baked in the oven where the flavours open up, the texture softens and the spruce wrapper begins to singe and impart it’s lofted, woody tones.
The cheese board is an obvious platform to celebrate alpine cheeses in all their unadulterated glory, but the melting properties of mountain cheeses like gruyere and fontina make them ideal for posh grilled cheese sandwiches, or melting over roast new potatoes into a gooey, cheesey, but deeply flavoured mess. And that classic marriage of cheese and potatoes could be seeing a lot of action this year as signs point towards European comfort food becoming a rising trend in the street food arena. The self-imposed restraints of using only Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano with pasta dishes may also be broken to pretty eye-opening results this year too, with some outlets beginning to venture in to the realms of alpine cheeses like Fontina, Gruyere and Comte to lacquer those Italian noodles.
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