Mountain Cheeses

Wengern Alp cheese dairy cowkeeper milking cow Bernese Oberland Switzerland e1383773182237 Mountain Cheeses

What makes a cheese a “mountain cheese,” other than that it comes from a mountain?

It was fascinating to discover that mountain cheeses are more aromatically complex than low-land cheeses. Upon reflection, it does make sense. Dairy animals grazing on upper elevations would have a greater diversity of plant species than their cousins by the sea. This wider mix of pasturage leads to greater nutritive values as well as more complex aromas.

Another reason why most mountain cheeses are more complex than those from the lower elevations is that historically, the mountain cheeses were created in larger formats so that they could age longer to help sustain its makers and their families throughout the winter months when other sources of nutrition might be a little scant. The larger sizes had a practical function as well. It is easier to transport one larger wheel of cheese than many smaller ones, especially up and down mountainsides. The low-land cheeses are mostly made for quick consumption, so these cheeses may not acquire the depth of flavors that the more aged mountain cheeses may exhibit. One notable exception to this is an aged Dutch Gouda; those can age out to six years, developing greater complexity throughout their ripening.

Dairies in upper elevations take advantage of other qualities of their terroir. The water is usually cleaner up in the hills than down in the valleys, after the water picks up impurities on its descent. The air is also usually much cleaner in the hills than down in the valleys and near waterways where our own species congregates. The lowland settlements have left their imprint on the land, not only the human impact but also that of the animals themselves, farming, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. Moving up the hillsides you have less residue from all this.

Some lowland pastures feature only a couple of different plant species to enjoy, whereas the higher pastures can contain dozens of species. The greater the diversity in the pasturage, the more complex the milk will be, as well as the resulting cheese. Some of the greatest regions for dairying in Europe include the alps of France, Switzerland and Italy; the Pyrénées of France and south of the border into Spain, and westward to Asturias; the higher elevations of the Rouergue, Franche-Comté, the Auvergne, Alsace, and Bavaria, to name a few. Here in the United States we have the hills of Vermont, Virginia, Oregon and Colorado, among others.

There is a greater proportion of raw milk cheeses produced in the upper elevations than there is in the lowlands. This can be partly attributed to the larger formats of mountain cheeses — those that can age out longer and thus easily satisfy the minimum aging requirements of sixty days, a minimum that has taken hold in other countries besides the United States.

I should not have to go into why the raw milk cheeses have greater complexity, on average, than the compromised milk varieties. Yet if anyone needs more clarification on that I will be happy to hold forth.

Head for the hills! I recently did. I spent last weekend in the high altitudes of the fifth Colorado Cheese Festival, this year in Longmont.

- Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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