The term “Swiss Cheese“ has a bad reputation. Every mediocre industrially produced Emmental style cheese seems to be allowed to be called “Swiss Cheese“. Would one call every girl by the name of Elizabeth “queen of England“? And would you call every cheese which looks like a Gruyère “alpine cheese“? Unfortunately, this is what happens all the time. Even seasoned cheesemongers and other experts call cheeses like Emmental, Gruyère (only 2% of all Gruyère is genuine alpine cheese), Comté, Appenzell and others “alpine cheeses“, regardless whether they have actually been produced at an “Alpage“ or not. Swiss law clearly states: “Alpine cheese is only allowed to be designated as such if it is made in summer at altitudes above 1000 meters, with milk originating from the surrounding area.“ The production zone of genuine alpine cheese is shown in dark green on this map:
In fact, the actual production zone is even smaller, as the dark green parts also encompass regions from 2500 to 4500 meters where there is, for obvious reasons, no cheese production possible. The topography restricts farms and cheesemakers to very small entities, and at the same time, the topography also makes collecting milk from different farms difficult, therefore most of the milk is processed into cheese on the spot – and not in a central factory, like in the lowlands. No transports are involved, the cows are mostly milked a few meters next to the “Chäserei“, the cheese dairy. Which also means that the cheeses are mostly “one herd“ cheeses, as the milk is not mixed with milk from other origins. The cows are only fed with grass and herbs they can find on their meadows at over 1000 meters (3000 ft). Is this really relevant? Yes, absolutely: The Swiss acricultural research institute Agroscope Liebefeld Posieux counted the number of varieties of plants at different altitudes. On the meadows around Posieux, in the canton of Fribourg, at 676 m above sea level, they only counted six different varieties of plants. At Montbovon, between 900 and 1250 meters, they found nine times more (54), and higher up, they even counted 110 different varieties, from 20 different families of plants. Furthermore, there are more herbs than grasses in alpine regions. The difference in the quality of the milk is astonishing – not ony in contents of lipids, trace elements and minerals, but also regarding odour and taste. You are what you eat – this is also true for cows. A cow which is fed on 110 different varieties of plants opposed to only six produces a milk which is richer, healthier and tastier. It is just not possible to achieve this richness with any other feed. The cheeses made with milk of such a quality are obviously of an altogether different quality than any other cheeses. Add to that that the cows drink some of the cleanliest waters available in Europe and breathe the purest air, it’s easy to understand that the quality of milk is unsurpassed. And: Alpine farming is an extensive agricultural form, where a cow has up to 5 (often quite steep) hectars to herself. I’d say: happy cows!
Swiss Mountain Cheese
The term “mountain cheese“ encompasses a much wider field:
In dark blue shown are the areas at altitudes above 600 meters in which mountain cheeses are being produced. And as we now know, even at 600 meters we may still encounter industrialised meadows which come with as little as 6 different varieties of plants. Mountain cheese can be made all year round in village dairies, but also in large cheese making factories – as long as the milk stems form the designated area. As we can see, nearly all of Switzerland is in the “mountain“ region. Unfortunately, under the term “mountain cheese“, cheese of quite mediocre quality can be produced. However, it is possible to find cheeses which are based on as good a milk as genuine “alpine“ cheeses. In the canton of Graubunden, for instance, all “mountain“ cheeses are produced above 1000 meters. There are indeed mountain cheeses which have similar qualities than genuine “alpine“ cheeses. But you have to know where to find them… In the rest of Europe, “mountain cheese“ as well as “alpine cheese“ are completely unprotected denominations. Many cheese makers legally misuse the term “alpine cheese“ to cover their mass production. One example: a factory in Austria uses the term “Alm“ (term used in Germany and Austria for what the Swiss call “Alp“) in its brand name. But the milk comes from over a thousand different farmers, transported over many miles, mixed together and turned into cheese named again “Alm“; “Berg“ or other alpine related terms. Switzerland, albeit not being a member of the EU, has to confirm to most EU laws – but unfortunately it’s not the other way around. Nobody in the EU or anywhere else in the world cares about the much stricter Swiss laws regarding the denomination of “genuine alpine cheese“. We here at Alpages are on a crusade and will continue to fight for, what we think, is the correct use of the term “alpine cheese“.