Alpine/Mountain Cheeses

If you have ever made hiking trips at altitude in mountainous regions and have trekked through the alpine meadows from one mountain to the next, you will know what the attraction of milk and cheese from those meadows will be. The grass is so lush and the meadow so full of flowers and herbs that with every step you take, you put out clouds of smells. You can just about imagine what flavors these smells will translate into when the cows produce their milk and the dairymen and women their cheeses.

The Alpine meadows came into being in the early fourth millennium BC, when colder winters pushed the timberline down in the mountainous regions in Europe. In the Alps, especially Switzerland, that opened up possibilities for farmers to increase the number of head in their dairy herds. Initially, the land in the valleys was so sparse that no fodder could be grown there to see the animals through the winter. The animals were stalled in byres and fed twigs and leaves from the forests. This process went on until the coming of the plow allowed more woodlands to be converted and put in agricultural production in the valleys.

The process of getting the herds of cows, sheep and goats up to these pastures starts in spring when the animals leave the winter quarters. They gradually make their way up the mountain in the age-old system of transhumance going from one pasture to another until they reach the top of the mountain. On the way up the shepherds stay in huts where rudimentary cheese making equipment is used. In many parts of the world the shepherds have to carry this equipment around with them so they are very limited in what they can bring. Once the cheeses have been made and have matured a bit they also need to come down the mountain the same way, that is why mountain cheeses are almost invariably firm but supple cheeses.

Conditions under which these cheeses are made are Spartan at best. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why the makers of these cheeses feel that they deserve to be in a class of their own. They united in an organization called Caseus Montanus and even have their own cheese Olympics where the best mountain cheeses are picked.

There is some science behind the separate classification, as typically a cheese made with milk from alpine meadows has 10 times as many micro-organisms in it than cheeses made with valley milk, which explains the nuances and depth of flavour of these cheeses in comparative testing. Another reason why these cheeses are almost invariably raw milk, as all these micro-organisms would not survive pasteurization.

As far as flavour profile is concerned, the Alpine cheese is a real product of its environment. The herbs, grasses and flowers have a clear impact on flavors of the cheese. As you will remember from earlier in the story, the cheese makers had to carry their cheesemaking equipment around with them. This included salt. The last thing these people wanted to do was to make the trip down the mountain again because they had been too liberal with the salt. They learnt how to get away with the minimal amount of salt in making their cheeses. This means that Alpine cheeses generally contain less salt than other cheeses. The sparing use of salt also had implications for the cultures they used and further developed over many years. The cultures they ended up with, particularly the Proponi Bacterium Freudenreichii/ Shermanii component of them, allowed the cheese makers to get maximum flavors at around 12 months of age. The resulting cheeses are nutty and creamy with lingering butteriness. The cultures are also responsible for the formation of little holes, called eyes, by creating CO2 gas.