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-week 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.
Le Maréchal, one of my favorites, is packed in herbs de Provence.
Their smooth character means that Swiss cheeses melt well, and their bold notes make them excellent picks for sandwiches and snack plates. Around the holidays, I like to pick up a few Alpines and set them out with whatever I have in the pantry. Mustards, pickles, and dried fruit all pair well. So do chestnuts and seasonally available fruits, like kumquats.
For a late Sunday lunch, simply raid your cabinets (don’t forget the schnapps!) and your work is done. No one will need supper after this kind of cheese board.
Here are some of my favorite Swiss Alpine selections:
From the Swiss canton of Vaud, this dark-rinded beauty is made from raw cow’s milk and packed in herbs de Provence. Imagine lush Alpine grasses here – you can almost taste them in the floral notes that creep beneath the sweet taste of green herbs and garlic. If strong cheese makes you nervous, you’ll like this nuanced softie. It’s a Gruyère on tenterhooks. The mouthfeel is supple, airbrush smooth. An interesting note: the dairy that supplies milk for this cheese feeds flax seed to the cows to increase the level of omega-3 fatty acids, producing a more heart-healthy cheese.
Unwrap this rustic brunette (I refer to the rind here), also from the canton of Vaud, and you can’t help but smell roasted onions. This is your quintessential Alpine muscle man, complete with riding crop and chaps. The flavors of this raw-milk cheese fill your mouth with stew, roasted nuts, and an elusive sweetness: apricots? The texture is smooth with tiny crystals from an amino acid called tyrosine that develops as this cheese ages for 30 months. You can taste tradition here: Etivaz (pronounced Eh-tee-VOSS) is made by several Alpine dairies that still heat their milk over open fires, thanks to strict regulations that govern cheese production.
From the canton of Appenzell, this superbly smooth raw cow’s milk cheese is flavorful without being robust. It smells sweet, like stewed fruit and toasted pecans, and as it melts on your tongue it coats your mouth with heavy cream, leaving a long-lasting impression. Even after a full minute passes, you can still taste Appenzeller; it has a honey-roasted front end and a slightly bitter flourish (think: chives) that creates balance. Look for the Extra Aged (black label); it’s aged at least six months and has much more depth than the silver label, which you often see in cheese shops.
Alpine cheeses are best served by something in a pint glass. Try a doppelbock or even a smoked beer. If wine is your queen, then seek out a high acid white, like an Alsatian Pinot Gris. A glass of sherry would never be out of place.