Chow Town

With fall weather fast approaching, now’s the time to learn about Mountain cheeses

Seasonal Gruyere made high in the Alps
Seasonal Gruyere made high in the Alps Special to The Star

I have been into Mountain cheeses lately. A “Mountain” cheese can refer to a wide variety of cheeses that are made in the mountains.

But it can also refer to a specific style. The specific style is what I am referring to.

Paul Kindstedt wrote about the characteristics of these cheeses: “moderate to large-sized, wheel-shaped, firm-bodied, rugged, long-lived … durable-rind cheeses with firm elastic bodies, and sometimes with holes or eyes, and with flavor profiles often described as ‘nutty.’ 

In his book “Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization,” Kindstedt talked about the commonalities of these cheeses that popped up all throughout the Alps and other mountain ranges in Europe.

By the end of The Middle Ages a common set of circumstances gave rise to this cheese type. The peasant farmers would raise only one to four cows as they farmed in the valleys and lowlands of Alpine areas.

In the spring and summer, the farms from the surrounding areas would appoint a few trusted “Cowmen” to take all of the cows from every farm up to graze on the grass, flowers and herbs of the mountain pastures. This is known as Transhumance.

These Cowmen would essentially camp out for the summer and do the milking, cheese making and affinage in small sheds or huts in the highlands. The cheeses had to be large and rugged to get them down the mountain in the fall. The large size helped with transport to markets but also helped with shelf life. The cheeses were 15 to 200 pounds and remain big to this day.

Many different techniques helped the cheeses in their high elevation. First they used relatively little salt to make the cheeses. It would have been almost impossible to carry a lot of salt up the mountains.

The low acidification of the milk in this environment meant that the curds had to be cut into very small pieces in order to expel enough whey. The curds were also heated to higher temperatures for the same purpose.

The small amounts of salt and low acid made the cheeses perfect hosts for propionic bacteria to thrive. This bacterium creates gas and it expands to give the cheese holes.

It also creates a strong flavor as it produces propionic acid. These cheeses were also susceptible to coryneform bacteria on the outside of the cheeses. The scraping or washing of the cheese as it ages would encourage them to grow on the rinds of the cheeses.

Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria and Germany all have these Alpine mountain cheese making traditions: cheeses like Appenzeller, Gruyere, Emmentaler, L’Etivaz Comte, Beaufort, Morbier, Fontina Valle d’Aosta, Bitto, Branzi and Allgauer Bergkase among many others.

The tradition of mountain style cheese has made its way to the U.S. Several cheese makers have made their own versions with much success. From Vermont and New York to Georgia and Tennessee, Mountain cheeses have found a home here.

One of the great things about this style of cheese is the way it melts. These cheeses are perfect when you apply heat. Since we are quickly approaching melted cheese weather these “Mountain Melters” deserve the attention.

On Sept. 27th, in conjunction with The Better Cheddar and The Culinary Center of Kansas City, I will teach a class called Mountain Melters: Fondue, Raclette and Other Cheesy Delights. We are going to have a tasting of several great mountain-style cheeses and then everyone gets to melt them. You will also learn tips about serving Fondue and Raclette at your next get together.

For more information about the class, which costs $60, and to reserve a seat, press here.

Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society-certified cheese professional. He is the manager and buyer for the Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can find him on Twitter @LincolnBbooks and on Instagram @lincycheese.