For most Americans, Swiss cheese is merely a partner for ham and rye. But hold the mayo, folks. Referring to cheese from Switzerland as one monolithic wheel is like lumping Parmigiano-Reggiano with the sawdust in those green canisters.
What many of us think of as Swiss cheese is Emmental, the one with the holes. However, the universe of Swiss cheeses is much broader than that and includes Appenzeller, Gruyère, Tête de Moine, Tilsit, Vacherin Fribourgeois and Râclette, all among the world's most important cheeses. In Cheese Primer (Workman), author Steven Jenkins calls Swiss-made Vacherin Mont d'Or "one of the highest achievements in human civilization." There are also highly regarded Swiss-style cheeses made outside Switzerland, like French Comté and Beaufort and U.S. artisanal cheeses such as Thistle Hill Tarentaise from Vermont and Wisconsin's Upland Cheese Co. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, named the country's best cheese by the American Cheese Society in 2001.
"People ask me if I carry Swiss cheese," says Caroline Hostettler, owner of Quality Cheese, an importer in Fort Myers, Fla. "I tell them I don't have a Swiss cheese but I do have 350 cheeses from Switzerland."
Most Swiss cheeses are referred to as Alpine or mountain cheeses, reflecting a geography dominated by the Alps. Such cheeses are usually made from raw (unpasteurized) cow's milk and are formed into large wheels weighing up to 220 pounds. With the exception of a few soft cheeses such as Vacherin Mont d'Or, Swiss cheeses are firm rather than hard and can age, some for two years or more.
The variety of Alpine grasses and plants along with pure water and an abundance of microclimates contribute to the nuances in Swiss cheeses. "There are lots of terroir differences," Hostettler says. "You can drive through Switzerland in four hours, but in between there are so many mountains that divide one region from another that it makes cheeses very different." The lush pastures of Switzerland make for rich milk, and thus cheeses with high butterfat content.
The two biggest categories of Swiss cheese are Emmental and Gruyère. Emmental, made in the Emme River Valley, is the closest to the clichéd image of Swiss cheese. Its signature holes are created by a bacteria particular to Emmental that gives off carbon dioxide, which eats through the cheese during aging. Quality can vary widely. At a tasting at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York, an unaged industrial Emmental, the kind frequently used for sandwiches in the United States, had little flavor and an almost plastic texture. A 4-month-old Emmental had faint echoes of deli Swiss but was noticeably more flavorful. At the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop in Philadelphia, an intense and nutty Emmi brand Emmental, aged for 12 to 14 months, was a totally different animal, considerably richer with much more depth of flavor.
Though the term "industrial" connotes a bland, mass-produced product, industrially crafted cheese can be made from raw milk and with care. Conversely, an "artisan" tag does not guarantee quality, or even that the cheese is made with raw milk. "Cave-aged" cheeses are aged longer and are often of better quality, but again, there are no concrete assurances because there are no commonly observed guidelines.
Since the Swiss haven't been as rigorous as other European countries in protecting their cheese names, you can find French Emmental that's as good as or better than the best Swiss Emmental.
Gruyère is richer and more complex than Emmental because unlike Emmental it is not made with partially skimmed milk, and it is aged longer. A raw milk, industrial Gruyère from Murray's, aged six to nine months, had a pleasant hearty flavor. A noticeable step up in intensity and character was a raw milk, industrial Gruyère aged 12 to 14 months, a terrific value at $11 a pound. "This is the cheese we give people who walk in and ask for Gruyère," says Elizabeth Thorpe, wholesale manager at Murray's. (Industrial cheeses are usually less than $12 a pound; artisan-made up to $25 a pound.) Gruyère Vieux from affineur ("cheese ager") Maison Mons, made from raw milk and aged two years, is a superb example that graces the cheese trolleys of New York restaurants Daniel and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. It has loads of complexity and the crystalline crunch one sees in Parmigiano.
Beaufort and Comté are two famous Gruyère-style French cheeses. The raw milk, artisanal Beaufort aged 12 to 16 months that I tried had an eggy quality and a fruitiness that is characteristic of this cheese. Nuttier and richer, with a fuller flavor and longer finish, was a comparably aged Comté. Better than both was the Beaufort-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin. Cheesemaker Mike Gingrich achieves cheesehead nirvana in the Pleasant Ridge by rotating the grazing of his cows so that the grass they eat offers maximum flavor and nutrition.
Alpage Prattigau, Hoch Ybrig and Vacherin Fribourgeois are three terrific artisanal cheeses that roughly fit into the Gruyère category though they are younger-no more than a year old-and made in smaller wheels. Alpage Prattigau by affineur Rolf Beeler is nutty and sweet, with butterscotch and caramel notes. Beeler's Hoch Ybrig is sharper and drier, with a very long finish. Vacherin Fribourgeois is rustic and elegant at once with a creamy texture and a lengthy finish.
Produced in the former canton, or state, of Appenzell near the Austrian border, Appenzeller is noted for its fruitiness, which I found, along with a sweet butteriness, in a version aged six to eight months. An 18-month Appenzeller from Downtown Cheese in Philadelphia was, in many ways, the essence of an Alpine cheese-buttery and rich, with a beautifully balancing sharpness.
Tilsit has some similarities to Appenzeller but doesn't command the same respect. Downtown Cheese owner Jack Morgan warns that it shouldn't be too old or "it gets too strong, too 'dirty.'" Woodsy is how I'd describe Morgan's 4-month-old Tilsit.
Tête de Moine ("monk's head") is most associated with a girolle, a gizmo that shaves cheese into feathery curls. "The slices just melt in your mouth as soon as they hit your tongue," Thorpe notes. Nonetheless, you can enjoy the nutty aroma and meaty taste of this cheese portioned with a simple knife.
Râclette is another cheese made in France as well as in Switzerland and is also the name for the Swiss dish of melted cheese over potatoes served with pickles and dark bread. "The main thing you want from Râclette is that it be soft and meltable," Thorpe says. French Râclettes are a bit stinkier (in a good way) than those from Switzerland.
For serious barnyardy, earthy cheese, though, seek out Vacherin Mont d'Or. This sublime cheese looks more French than Swiss because of its small size and creamy texture. Indeed, Vacherin Haut-Doubs, made in Franche-Comté, is its identical twin. In either case, make sure you get a superior raw milk version. Serve it when it is runny enough to be eaten with a spoon. Like Vacherin Mont d'Or, Forsterkäse is a washed-rind cheese, which promotes bacteria growth and thus more pungent aromas. But unlike Vacherin Mont d'Or, the powerful scents in Beeler's Forsterkäse are of the forest, not the farm. Forsterkäse is available year-round whereas Vacherin Mont d'Or is made only from August through March.
Less expensive Swiss cheeses such as Râclette, Emmental and younger Gruyères are naturals for melting in gratins and quiches. Potatoes have a particular affinity for these cheeses along with onions. A mix of cheeses adds greater complexity to fondues.
The better the cheese, though, the more you'll want to enjoy it at room temperature with dried fruits such as Medjool dates and figs, and sweet fresh fruit like Comice pears or Fuji apples. Almonds and walnuts are also good accompaniments.
As for wines with Swiss cheeses, I particularly liked a dry-style Alsace Riesling and a spätlese from the Mosel. Pinot Noir, especially with Vacherin Mont d'Or, and cru Beaujolais were also good choices, as would be other fruity, light- to medium-bodied wines. Beer isn't a bad choice either, especially when the Swiss is with ham on rye.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
How to Get It
Artisanal Cheese Center Formaggio Kitchen Inc. Murray's Cheese Shop Zingerman's Delicatessen
(877) 797-1200, www.artisanalcheese.com
(888) 212-3224, www.formaggiokitchen.com
(888) 692-4339, www.murrayscheese.com
Ann Arbor, Mich.
(888) 636-8162, www.zingermans.com
Artisanal Cheese Center
Formaggio Kitchen Inc.
Murray's Cheese Shop