As all of you know, we are big fans of Alpine-style cheeses. And although Olsson’s have carried cheeses like Gruyere and Comte almost from day one, some 35 years ago now, our love for the cheeses from the Alps started really with one cheese: Red Witch. When Olsson’s was still in the Trenton Farmers Market Rudie saw a picture of the cheese in one of the flyers sent out by cheese distributor Cheeseworks (who were taken over years ago by Cheesewarehouse, who in turn were renamed to World’s Best Cheeses).
The picture was of a red witch on a broomstick, around which appeared “Red Witch” in the 3 principal languages in Switzerland (Die Rote Hekse -German, La Strega Rossa -Italian, La Sorciere Rouge -French) and English. He thought it would be a gimmicky thing to have this cheese in the store for Halloween that year, irrespective of whether it was any good. When the cheese arrived in the store the whole team tasted it and unanimously decided that it was a great cheese. The cheese has been one of our standards ever since.
The Red Witch is made by Kaeserei Oberli in the little hamlet of Rislen at over 2000 feet elevation near Rossrueti in the canton of St Gallen. The team is led by Christian Oberli who is the third generation Oberli to run the dairy. His grandfather set up the dairy in 1926 and produced Emmentaler primarily for the export market. When Christan’s father took over the dairy, market requirements had changed and the dairy switched to making Tilsiter almost exclusively. When, under pressure from the WTO, government-sponsored regulation on cheese in Switzerland loosened in 1999, Christian was given the opportunity to start making his own range of cheeses. His main style of cheese is now Raclette in a square form in all kinds of flavors.
Christian Oberli (photo courtesy foodaktuel) Kaeserei Oberli (photo courtesy Sonja Hofman Raclette Corner)
According to Caroline Holstettler, the importer of this cheese in the US, Red Witch was conceived in a conversation over a meal at the Bern main railway station between a cheese fan, Mrs. Zuehlke, and Christian. She thought that there was a gap in the Swiss cheese market for a party cheese that would go well with beer and wine at the time of Fasnacht (Carnevale), a three-day festival during lent. They hashed out what the characteristics of such a cheese should be and Christian went off to develop the recipe for the cheese. To link the Halloween-for-adults-type festival to the cheese, the red witch on the broomstick became part of the label and the cheese production included a paprika brine-wash which turns the rind red. The first Red Witches flew out from Kaeserie Oberli in 2008.
The cheese is alpine in character, which means it is made of raw milk collected within a 7-mile radius of the dairy. The farms supplying the milk are run on a grass-feed-only basis. The cheese culture used in the production of the cheese comprises amongst others Lactobacillus Helveticus and produces a nutty, complex but mild flavor profile and a characteristically supple paste. The culture used tends to produce some CO2 which creates holes (eyes in cheese jargon) that tend to remain small because the cheese is aged under cold conditions (unlike Emmental where the warm aging has the same culture produce large holes). The Holstettlers asked Christian to lengthen the aging time from 5 to 7 to 8 months to produce a more intense flavor for the US market. And, before you ask, …. the Red Witch has an older sister which saw its debut in 2017.