Etivaz, from the Vaud region of Switzerland, is a taste of the old ways of cheesemaking; crafted by hand, in small copper-lined vats over wood-fires, during the peak cheesemaking months of summer, in the tradition of the Alpage styles of Swiss Cheese. It could even be described as the original Gruyere: in the 1930’s, a collective of Gruyere-producing families in the canton of Vaud became frustrated with lax government regulations of the period, which they felt were allowing sub-par Gruyere’s to go to market and destroying the reputation of all Gruyere producers in the process. They decided to withdraw from the Gruyere program and created their own cheese, which they named L’Etivaz, after a village which was central to their region.
Etivaz is made in the summer months, when the cows are taken up into the mountains to pasture on the rich breadbasket of grasses, herbs and flowers carpeting the alpine fields. The cheesemakers travel up to huts where they stay for a few weeks before following the cows up to the huts at higher altitudes, and then higher still, until late in the summer, at which point they do the process in reverse, eventually returning to the valleys by the time the cold weather rolls in and the alpine meadows get buried in meters of snow. This is a process known as “transhumance”, the movement of animals and herders with the seasons, that is particular to agriculture in mountainous regions around the world (although not practiced as often these days, with the transition to modern agricultural methods).
Crafted into wheels ranging from 40-110 lbs in weight, the outer rind is amber-brown and stony gray, and the paste is golden-ivory in color, with only an occasional eye or fissure, dense and slightly moister and creamier than Gruyere. (in the picture above, the large opening is actually the scar of a cheese iron which had been inserted to remove a cheese plug, essentially a core sample, so the cheese could be sampled, after which the plug was reinserted and the rind resealed. If you look close you can see the outline of the trier scars, and that the plug, when reinserted, was pushed in slightly further than flush with the edge).
The flavor of the Etivaz is deep and complex, wonderfully nutty, fruity and smoky, with floral, herbaceous and toasted hazelnut notes. Given the handcrafted, highly local nature of the make process, there can be variations in flavor from one Etivaz to the next, depending on the grasses of that particular alpine meadows, the woods burned under the copper vats, even the altitude (certain alpine plants only grow within narrow bands above sea level; a drive up a mountain road can sometimes be marked by distinct transition-points, where the red, brushy flowers will suddenly vanish altogether to be replaced by a yellow lacy flower, which in turn will be overtaken by a violet teacup higher up).
Purchased at Murray’s.
Socheese.fr has a great photo essay about a young couple, Eric and Sophie Gutknecht, who are making the famed AOC cheese Etivaz, one small, wood-fire heated, copper vat at a time:
Eric and Sophie, both 30, are part of a young generation of 70 Etivaz producers and spend 110 days a year in high mountain pasture. They have a well organised work schedule: two weeks in the lowest alpine hunt (1,530m), then two and a half weeks in the next (1,715m) and 6 weeks at the summit. Before going descending the mountain again, 10 days are spent in the alpine hut half way down and then another three weeks in the lowest hut. Then, it’s back to Moulin, near Château d’Œx, the couple’s ‘base camp’. All of the alpine huts are at least 200 years old, and have been extended and done up according to what work needed doing and how much money the couple had at the time.
The season for high mountain pasture, authorised for this prestigious AOC cheese, is from 10th May until 10th October, at a height of at least 1000m. With this time schedule, they are able to make 210 rounds of cheese (25kg each on average, 17kg the smallest, up to 36kg for the biggest). In winter, the milk is provided by the dairy in Moulin, which makes organic Gruyère.
Check out the full story here.
One of the most common questions one gets asked as a cheese devotee is: “what’s your favorite cheese?”
I won’t lie; I hate this question, almost as much as being asked to name my favorite movie: which genre are we talking here, western, neo-realist, documentary, independent, experimental, comedy, sci-fi, Eastern European stop-motion? An accurate list of “favorites” would end up being two pages long to cover every area of film, and the same applies to cheese. That being said, if you asked me to name one of my favorite Swiss Alpine cheeses, Chällerhocker (pronounced “Holler-hocker”, the name roughly translates to “sitting in the cellar”) would definitely be at or near the top of the list, and has been there for a few years now, which is why I was surprised to realize that I’d never actually posted about it here until now!
Walter Rass, of Käserei Tufertschwil in Toggenburg, in the canton of St. Gallen, Switzerland, is the cheesemaker behind Chällerhocker. The region is also known as “Appenzellerland”, and Rass’ original expertise is in the making of Appenzeller (you can read my post about his Appenzeller Extra-Aged here).
Rass’ Appenzeller’s are considered some of the best, and several years ago he took an unusual step for an established swiss cheesemaker and began experimenting with the Chällerhocker, raising the milkfat from the levels usually used in Appenzeller, changing the curd size, increasing the aging time and washing the smaller wheels with a distinctive blend of wine and herbs. I say unusual because, while Switzerland is undoubtedly one of the great cheese nations of the world, until recently the governmental and industrial focus, through subsidy and marketing support, has overwhelmingly been for the classic, large format styles — the Gruyere’s, Emmentalers, Appenzellers etc that we traditionally think of when we think of “Swiss Cheese” — at the expense of the smaller, artisanal and experimental cheesemakers who might produce excellent cheeses but do so in styles and formats which are less export-friendly. Thankfully, that’s now changing.
At around 15 lbs, the Chällerhockers come in a smaller format than their Appenzeller siblings. For such a complex-flavored cheese, I was surprised to hear that it was made with heat-treated rather than raw milk, although in this case it’s thermalized — heated to 140-150ºF rather than the full pasteurization at 160ºF+ — which in theory provides a gentler treatment that preserves more of the natural cultures in the milk.
The outer rind is textured, slightly sticky and gritty, with an amber-golden color with washes of pink, and a distinctive four-faced logo imprinted on the top of the wheel (“super-creepy”, as Chällerhocker devotee Gordon Edgar affectionately puts it). The paste is pale gold, with a scattering of spherical eyes. The texture of the Chällerhocker is dense, creamy and notably velvety on the palette, smoother than traditional Appenzeller’s. There is a wonderful aroma as well, edging towards stinky, but with all of the cooked milk and floral notes of an alpine. In flavor the Chällerhocker is wonderfully complex; buttery, briny, nutty and earthy with a swirl of caramelized onions, cured beef, toasted almonds, grass and caramel.
This is one of those cheeses that I could eat every day, and works equally well eaten straight, sliced onto crusty french bread or melted over potatoes and is an excellent addition to a fondue (although it seems a bit of a shame to lose such a distinctive cheese to the melting pot).
If you’re curious about the rise of the New Swiss cheese, check out the amazing coffee table book “Swiss Cheese: Origins, Traditional Cheese Varieties and New Creations”, by Dominik Flammer and Fabian Sheffold, definitely the best book — in English at least — about the Swiss cheese world today.
With the temperature dropping and winter coming on fast (ok, it’s 60F today in NYC, but bear with me), thoughts naturally turn to comfort foods and cozy eating experiences. Perhaps no food better exemplifies that than Fondue; hot, molten cheese, into which breads, potatoes, meats and other skewered delectables are dunked and pulled, oozing with cheese, to be eaten as quickly as possible.
Boska — a dutch company known for design-conscious cheese gear that combines functionality and modern aesthetics — recently sent me a review package of their Boska Tapas Fondue Set, a miniature, two-person fondue that is powered by nothing more than a tea candle. The Tapas is handsome, no doubt: a black enameled fondue pot rests on polished wooden base, into which the candle fits. Two mini skewers come with the kit as well, but that’s it, small and simple.
I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. Fondue is usually made in a large fondue pot set over a proper burner, large enough to feed four or more people easily. Boska makes such a set, the Nero. With the Tapas, the fondue is actually prepared on the stovetop first, and then poured into the Tapas to be served in and kept warm. I doubted whether the tea candle could really keep it at proper temperature, or maintain the temperature evenly throughout the pot (I expected the top to congeal while the base remained liquid hot).
I ended being pleasantly surprised. While it’s certainly not the same experience as a full-sized fondue burner, the Tapas does a good job, thanks to the heavy enamelware, of keeping the cheese molten and gooey from top to bottom, and we found ourselves dunking happily with only an occasional stir needed to maintain consistency when the very top started to develop a sheen.
The Tapas is attractive as well, doubling as a low-light candle for the table when lit. For a two-person, romantic meal, it would be perfect, and you could probably even use it in a pinch for a three or four person meal, if the fondue was meant as an appetizer or side dish. You could also make a larger batch and keep it warmed on the stove, periodically transferring it to the Tapas.
And yes, that IS a box of pre-made fondue you see there. I’m normally a believer in homemade fondue, of course, but hey, I was curious, since Boska included a box of the Emmi Fondue Mix, so I thought I would give it a whirl. I have to admit, it was better than expected. I like mine with a bit more kick; my ideal mix might include some Scharffe Maxx or other assertive alpines to give it depth and complexity, and a bit of Calvados never hurts. The texture, while good, was not as smooth and velvety as you’d get from a well-crafted, fresh fondue. But as a basic recipe, it did the trick; I guess the Swiss have progressed in their pre-made cheese dishes a little further than we have.
One thing to note: the Tapas needs to be soaked in cold water for 2 hours before use the first time. This is done to protect the pot from cracking when exposed to heat, which seems like a pretty important step, but if you blinked, you’d miss the sentence in the instructions where they tell you to do this. I’m guessing quite a few first-time users pull the set out, light the candle, and drop the fondue pot on top without bothering with the instructions, thus missing that step altogether. Boska should probably feature that instruction more prominently, perhaps with a warning sticker across the top of the pot that needs to be removed before use.
Over at TableMatters.com, Tenaya Darlington — aka Madame Fromage and author of the blog of the same name — discusses the glories and benefits of Alpine cheeses, and how they can compliment any cheese slate or snack plate:
When I was a kid living back in the Midwest, my Swiss mother used to set out a cheese board every Sunday for lunch, along with crusty bread, cured meats, fruit, cornichons, and nuts. It connected her to her childhood, she always told us, but it served another purpose, too: real Swiss cheese was her end-of-the-weak antidote to the many American products that made her scowl as the trolled the grocery, starting with Velveeta.
In our house, you had to eat Swiss cheese on Sundays. Or else. “The Frau,” as people often called our mother, taught us that strong flavors build strong character.
In the cheese world, the mountain cultures of Switzerland, Italy, and France are known for their robust wheels. Think of Gruyère (Switzerland), Fontina (Italy), and Beaufort (France). You’ll find gentle Bries and mellow soft cheeses like mozzarella as you move inland, but the bold stuff? It originates in the Alps.
Practically, there’s a good reason for strong mountain cheeses. They contain very little moisture, a trick that shepherds developed so that their horses had less weight to carry down rocky slopes into town. Genius. Pressing the moisture out of cheese, and letting it evaporate during long ageing periods, also concentrated flavor notes. The result: a smooth-textured, wildly interesting style of cheese.
In Switzerland, Alpine pastures are highly prized – the best grasses grow in spring-fed mountain valleys where minerals enrich the soil, and thus the milk. Swiss cheesemakers learned to play up these vibrant grassy tones by pressing local herbs into the rinds of cheeses as they developed, or washing the wheels with herb-infused liqueurs.
Check out the full post for some of her top varieties of Alpine and more.
(Photo ©2012 TableMatters.com)
Today’s cheese is Appenzeller Käserei Tufertschwil, a superb specimen from a ubiquitous Swiss cheese. Swiss cheese has seen a renaissance in the last decade, thanks to changes in the Swiss government’s policies regarding subsidies for the cheese industry (previously they had aggressively, and even oppressively, subsidized and pushed the big industrial cheeses that we now think of as “Swiss Cheese”) and with it has come new awareness of the great farmstead and artisan cheeses of Switzerland. The recently published “Swiss Cheese: Origins, Traditional Cheese Varieties and New Creations” is an excellent resource if you want to delve further into the subject.
One of my favorite Swiss alpines is Challerhocker, produced by master cheesemaker Walter Rass of Käserei Tufertschwil in Toggenburg, in the canton of St. Gallen (The region is also known as “Appenzellerland”, and there is even breed of mountain dog known as the Appenzell). Challerhocker is a reimagined version of the traditional Appenzeller recipe, in which curd size, aging times, and brines have all been tweaked to produce a complex, inspiring variation on the traditional alpine cheese.
Rass has his roots in the production of traditional Appenzeller, and his Appenzeller’s are nothing to sneeze at either, considered some of the best in Switzerland. This version had the black label which denotes “Extra Aged” (quick label lesson: for swiss cheeses, Silver=”Classic”, or aged three to four months, Gold=”Surchoix”, or aged four to six months, and Black=”Extra Aged”, aged six months or longer).
Rass, in a practice highly unusual at this point, makes his own Rennet rather than purchasing it from a culture house; this exemplifies the care and attention to detail that goes into the production of all of his cheeses. The Appenzeller is a raw cow’s milk firm cheese, made with partially skimmed milk, that is washed with a brine that is a blend of wine and diverse herbs, and aged at least ten months.
Young Appenzeller’s can be a little bit bland, your run of the mill sandwich cheese, but with aging comes a deepening and complexity in the flavor. The golden paste, lightly eyed, has a dense and smooth texture; the aroma is subtle but enveloping, fruity and grassy. The flavor of this Appenzeller is rich, spicy, meaty and nutty, with herbaceous, butterscotch and pineapple notes, melting on the palette.
Purchased at Murray’s.
Saving for your next big cheese purchase? Do it in style with this Swiss Cheese piggy bank. Spotted at Hudson Supermarket antique shop in Hudson, NY.
Just recieved in the mail: my copy of “Fromages Suisses” (originally published in French, German as “Schweizer Käse” and English as “Swiss Cheese: Origins, Traditional Cheese Varieties and New Creations”), which has quickly established itself as the definitive encyclopedia on Swiss cheese making, both in it’s most traditional forms and for the new generation of Swiss makers like Willi Schmid who are rediscovering old cheeses and inventing new ones.
“Swiss Cheese” as a label has unfortunately taken on rather bland connotations, as many people tend to associate it with the bland yellow blocks with the classic holes found in every deli case. But as Max McCalman has said, “there is no ‘Swiss Cheese’; there are ‘Swiss Cheeses’!” and this book certainly illustrates that, and does so in gorgeous detail and full color. Beyond the industrial cheeses which have long dominated the image that people have of Swiss cheese (in no small part due to aggressive marketing strategies and economic incentives practiced for decades by Swiss government and industry), there is a world of small-scale, high-quality cheeses in a multitude of styles; nowhere does the swiss trifecta of cultures — German, French and Italian — become more clear than in the cheese landscape. In fact, Switzerland has the highest prevalence of raw milk cheeses, in terms of its percentage of total cheese production; not even France produces as much. However, as Rolf Beeler writes in the introduction, raw milk cheeses are — in Switzerland as everywhere else — losing ground in the face of economic and governmental pressures, which only makes it more important to celebrate the makers who are dedicated to creating their cheeses from raw milks.
The book is not just tremendously informative but gorgeous to look at as well, with beautiful photography throughout by Zurich-based photographer Fabian Scheffold. the book explores the Swiss cheese landscape from one corner of the country to the other, trekking to secluded Alpine valleys and peaks to find the artisan cheese makers who are still crafting these glorious cheeses using the traditional methods such as copper vats over wood-burning fire pits, while also introducing us to the quality makers who have brought advantages of modernity to their operations with automated cheese-flipping machinery and other innovations. The book also offers a treasury of cheese history in the first part, and an exhaustive index in the back of cheeses by name, maker, type and other categories.
Published under the Slow Food imprint and Written by Dominick Flammer, an independent journalist specializing in economics, but with a passion for the history and culture of cuisine and the culinary arts. Since 2001, he has run a cooking school in Zurich, Shoppenkochen.
The english version is pretty tough to find, but it look like Quality Cheese might be carrying it. Otherwise you might want to check the French and German versions of Amazon or other book sites to find it.
Update: I spoke with Caroline Hostettler at Quality Cheese and she confirmed that they have the English version, you can order it here.
Buffalo Blue, another cheese from swiss master Willi Schmid (see my previous posts about the Hölzige Geiss and the Jersey Blue). Schmid is an influential figure in the new wave of small-scale Swiss cheese making (Newlyswissed.com had a good profile of him, and Schmid recently held a talk and tasting at the new Bedford Cheese Shop location in Irving Place which I sadly couldn’t attend). Willi’s creamery is located in Lichensteig, in the Toggenburg valley of the Thur River, in the Swiss Canton of St. Gallen.
The Buffalo Blue is made from pasteurized Water Buffalo milk — much more common in Italian cheese making and a decided rarity in Switzerland, particularly in the German-speaking cantons which are famed first and foremost for their mastery of the thermophilic cow’s milk cheeses (aka Alpine cheeses).
As with the Jersey Blue, the yellow-ivory paste is shot through with thick, kelp-like strands of blue mold with occasional white-mold coated pockets dotting the landscape. This is a deceptivel mild cheese up front, sweeter and creamier even than the Jersey Blue, with a wonderful smokiness and caramel’y notes, but with a strong peppery blue cheese bite that comes roaring in at the end (and in the back of your mouth).
All in all another Schmid cheese to seek out. (Although I couldn’t help but wonder if Willi is aware of the associations that “Buffalo Blue” brings up in America: Try googling this cheese and see how many recipes you get for blue cheese dips for buffalo wings!)
Purchased at Bedford Cheese Shop, Irving Place location.
Hölzige Geiss, aka Wooden Goat, from cheese maker Willi Schmid, maker of the previously reviewed Jersey Blue and a somewhat legendary figure in the new wave of small-scale Swiss cheese making (Newlyswissed.com had a good profile of him, and Schmid recently held a talk and tasting at the new Bedford Cheese Shop location in Irving Place which I sadly couldn’t attend). Willi’s creamery is located in Lichensteig, in the Toggenburg valley of the Thur River, in the Swiss Canton of St. Gallen.
The Hölzige Geiss is a bark-wrapped wheel, similar to a Vacherin Mont d’Or (or Rush Creek Reserve, Jasper Hill’s Winnimere, or the many other Vacherin-inspired cheeses now dotting the landscape), in appearance if not in flavor. It is in some respects an unusual cheese; I’m not sure if this is always the case, but the bone white, lightly eyed paste is much firmer than one would expect from these style of cheeses and has a slightly spongy, even — as fellow urban cheese maker Jon Bonanno described it — marshmallow’y feel to it. this is not a girdled cheese that you would slice the top off of and eat with a spoon, although that being said, you might plow through the wheel just as quickly once you sample it.
In taste as well it’s hard to quantify: with a pungent washed-rind, sticky to the touch and aromatic, it is mild up front but with a sweet, tangy, complex flavor, with hints of nuts and grass, and with a distinctly arboreal flavor from the fir bark, especially at the rind, like standing in a pine grove with the smell of the pine tar wafting off the trees. There is a slight bitterness as well, almost like a vegetable rennet cheese but attributed in this case, I suspect, to the bark, as I’m pretty sure this is an animal-rennet cheese. There’s very little goatiness at all in this cheese. Like all of Schmid’s cheeses, a delicious, if slightly unusual, specimen.
You can see video of Willi Schmid at work in this segment from Swiss television (in Swiss German only unfortunately). At 3:35 you can see him girdling the Hölzige’s with bark.