Are alpine cheeses organic?


They are more organic than some products bearing one of the many different European labels for organic food. Unfortuntaley, there doesn't exist one single European law for organic farming. There are many different organisations issuing different rules and certifications. Some organisations have lower levels than others. The Swiss government requires strict rules for mountain summer farming. For example, no herbicides, no fungicides are allowed, in situ produced cow manure is the only fertilizer allowed. Swiss alpine cheeses are therefore generally produced according to quite strict rules of organic farming. Some of them obtain a Swiss Bio (organic) label, if the cows are kept according to organic principles not only in summer, but also throughout the winter. But as many "alpages" also host cows from other farms, it is quasi impossible to have the operation certified, as the involved farms might differ from year to year. 


Why have I never heard of these great cheeses before?


Alp cheeses are only produced from May until September. The first ones can be sold only after about a month of maturation, some regions request a maturation time of at least 60 days, while they are tasting best after at least a year’s maturation in dedicated cellars. 

Therefore, even in Switzerland, alp cheeses are not always available. However, this makes it a very desirable speciality. The cheese may be directly obtained from the alpine chalets in which they are made during the summering season. Which means: you have to hike up there. And, second disadvantage: most alpine farmers only sell cheese of current production, i.e. young. It takes a good cellar with the appropriate humidity and  temperature as well as a dedicated «affineur» to mature them to perfection. As only 2% of Swiss cheese production is genuine alpine cheese, it is safe to say that also only about 2% of retailers have them in stock. 


How much alp cheese is being produced every year?


Alp cheese is only produced in the summer – with milk from the cows, goats or sheep that graze on the Alpine pastures. It is only when the milk production and cheese making take place on the mountains themselves that the cheese may be called Alp cheese. Therefore, the production is very limited – it amounts to less than 2% of the whole Swiss cheese production. 


 I’m in Switzerland next week. Can I somewhere watch alpine cheese making?


Yes, some alpine cheesemakers gladly show you how they produce their cheeses. But you have to get up early, as the process often starts as early as 5 am. And of course, you have to be there during the summer months. Tell us in which region you are planning to travel – we can provide you with contacts.


Why are these cheeses only produced in summer?


Alpine pastures can only provide grass and herbs in summer. Some meadows at very high altitude (6000 feet and more), provide the cows only for about ten days with grass – then the growth period is over again. In some areas, the cows are grazing on more than 4 stages – for instance, in May, they graze for 3 weeks on 3600ft, in June on 5400ft, at the end of July at 6000ft. Later, they go back again to 5400ft and 3600ft. This also means that the farming family is dislocating several times throughout each summer.


What is the difference between alp cheese and mountain cheese (“Alpkäse” and “Bergkäse”)?


Alp cheese is very different to mountain cheese. Alp cheese is produced only in summer during the so-called summering on the mountain pastures. Mountain cheese, on the other hand, is produced throughout the year in the village dairies (or even small industrial cheesemaking factories) of mountainous regions, thus also in winter when the animals are fed with hay in the barn or cowshed. The region in which cheese is allowed to be called mountain cheese is about four times the size of the region in which genuine alpine cheese production is allowed.

Most consumers are not aware of this difference, not even in Switzerland, although the difference in nutrional values (alpine cheeses have much higher contents of Omega 3 for instance) and in taste are huge.

Some brands take advantage of that and show pictures of snowy mountains on the labels of their cheeses or call them “Bergalp” or something similar to make believe they are the real thing – while they’re produced on an industrial level, often with pasteurised milk.


Are there any other Swiss alp cheeses available in the UK?


We only know of an Etivaz and a Gruyère d’Alpage for sale in the UK. For our tastes, they are sold mostly too young to express their full potential. There are other cheeses with names alluding to mountain cheese production, like Bergheu, Heidi or similar. But in all cases we have encountered, they are not made in summer above 3000 feet. If you are looking for other alp cheeses, look out for the French Beaufort d’Alpages or summer Beaufort. The art of making Beaufort has been brought from Gruyère to the Savoie, so these cheeses are rather similar to a Gruyère d’Alpage. But be careful, descriptions like “Beaufort from the mountains” or the like don’t mean necessarily that they have been produced according to the strict rules the Swiss authorities have for their alp cheeses. 


How many litres of milk are there in a kilogram of cheese?


It takes about 12 litres of milk for one kilogram of alpine cheese. That’s for young cheese. Maturing, the cheese can lose up to another 20% of its weight after one year. Therefore, there’s even more milk in our aged cheeses than in the younger ones.  

During maturation, cheese is losing humidity – while gaining a lot of taste.  


How big is a wheel?


This depends on the region. In the very steep mountains of central Switzerland, the cheeses are mostly smaller, weighing 4 to 6 kilos. Especially in the old times, those cheeses were easier to handle than the big wheels (25 to 40 kg) made in the Gruyère area (like our Etivaz and Gruyère d’Alpage cheeses). Historically, this was a disadvantage for commerce, as custom duties on cheeses were on piece, not on weight. A clear advantage for Emmental cheese, which weighs up to 120 kgs (and could therefore only be produced in village or industrial dairies, because one man alone can not handle it. While in alpine cheese procuction, the cheesemaker is often on his own.)

Smaller wheels dry out quicker, therefore we tend to chose the bigger wheels (some producers make differently sized cheeses, by means of a flexible form).


 What is an "alpage"?


Alpage is the french expression for an alpine meadow, which is used to herd animals in summer, and only in summer. The German expression is “alp” which is even closer to the word Alp (as in the mountain range), confusing english speaking people even more. An alpage includes the meadows, the cowshed, the cheese dairy as well as a home for the "Senn"  (alpine farmer) and his workers (mostly a "Zusenn" and a cheesemaker). An alp mostly consist of three stages, one at lower altitude (mostly called "Maiensäss" = seat for the month of May), one at a very high altitude for the warmest weeks of the year and then another stage for the weeks in between. Most "alpages" have a cheese dairy at every stage.


Why is alp cheese more “artisan “ than other cheeses?


Modern cheese production is based on pasteurised milk. Pasteurised milk is always the same, characterless, predictable. Therefore all the cheese making processes can be automated: Basically, at one end of the factory you fill in the milk, milk which has been mixed together from thousands of cows from dozens of farms, regardless of an individual cow's condition. At the other end, cheese comes out – cheese that tastes the same every day of its production. Alpine cheese making requires however a lot of manual labour and human involvement. As the milk is different every day (due to weather conditions, time of the season), the cheesemaker has to take different decisions to achieve his or her goal: to produce a great cheese. Alpine cheese making is always a small scale operation, many processes are still done by hand, because machines and automation would be too expensive for the short amount of time the faciities are in use. Furthermore, there is mostly not a lot of space for a lot of machinery.


 Why is Piora cheese so expensive?


First of all: it tastes really exceptional. Due to the unique terroir, it is nearly impossible to recreate the particualr Piora aroma (although our Sorescia comes very close!). The alp is a cooperative, some 30 farmers from the lowlands have their cows grazing up there. The cheese is made in a functional modern dairy (which still involves a lot of artisan skills), it is sold from the different farmers' cellars – first, you have to find one who is willing to sell a wheel or two of his cheeses, and – they don't negotiate the prices. 


 Are your cheeses suitable for vegetarians?


No, if you are a strict vegetarian, you're unfortunately banned from eating genuine Swiss alpine cheese, as natural rennet is used for their production. 


Why do alpine cheese makers not use vegetarian rennet?


Rennet which is microbiologically produced, ie without the ferments from calf's stomach, are not suited for truly artisanal production, even less for alp cheeses which have to be matured over a longer time to show their full potential: Microbiological rennet can turn cheese bitter. This bitterness is accentuated in matured cheeses. 


I am lactose intolerant, can I eat alpine cheese? 


Hard, matured cheese is a great choice for people who want the good ingredients of the milk, but are lactose intolerant. This is because most of the lactose in the milk used to make hard cheeses is removed in the whey as part of the cheese-making process, making them virtually lactose free. Further more, during maturation, all lactose is turned into other forms of sugar.


All the cheeses are made with unpasteurised raw milk. Is this a health hazard?


No, and this for two reasons. First of all: Alpine cheeses are made with the freshest milk possible, the one produced directly at the cheesemaker's premises. No transports are involved, which means again less risk for contamination. Furthermore, the cheesemakers are aware of the risks involved and work therefore with extra high caution. The Swiss government's health authority, the BAG (Bundesamt für Gesundheit) says: "Fresh and soft cheeses made from raw milk contain rather listeria pathogenic than long matured raw milk cheeses like Sbrinz, Gruyère and other alpine hard cheeses. These cheeses hardly ever contain any listeriosis. If, then in the rind. If you want to be extra careful, don't eat the rind." We agree with that: the rind of a matured cheese is not to be eaten, it is not a great pleasure – the rind is there to protect the cheese and to help it getting its great taste. 


Is alpine cheese good for my teeth and bones?


Calcium helps build strong teeth and bones. Hard cheese is a great source of calcium.  A 30 gramm piece of alpine cheese provides about 30% of an adults daily requirement for calcium.


Why do alpine cheeses have more essential Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids than any other cheeses?


The main reason is the quality of the grass: alpine flora contains more alpha-linolen acids  than lowland flora. These alpha-linolen acids are turned into essential Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, while also the ratio between Omega 3 and Omega 6 is very favourable.


 Why don’t you offer goat or ewes cheese?


We restrict ourselves to alpine cheeses made from raw milk. There are some great goat and sheep cheeses out there in the Swiss alps, but so far we haven’t found one which fulfills all our criteria: most goat and ewe cheeses are made of thermised milk (close to raw milk, better than pasteurised, but still… not raw milk). 


Why is older cheese more expensive than younger one?


Maturation of a cheese takes a lot of effort. We mature our cheeses by hand. Every single wheel is washed and turned weekly or bi-weekly, an occupation which equals any tough workout in the gym! (Most larger "affineurs" have robots to do this work. They lift the cheese from the shelf, wash it, and put it back again – all automatically. This is fine, but the robot can't take the different characters of particular wheels into account. Our affineur, Lee Aspinall, can do more than any robot: he sees how a specific wheel is maturing and is able to treat it accordingly. ) Furthermore, maturation needs space, space means costs: rents, energy, insurance and so on. And the biggest factor of it all is weight: during a year's maturation, the cheese loses about 10 to 15% of its initial weight (humidity) and turns into more tasty substances.


Why does raw milk make cheese so different?


Pasteurising might kill germs, but it also kills all the bacteria that are responsible for the taste. In every type of milk, the bacteria are different, which makes one part of the specific taste of a cheese.


What is the difference to other cheeses like cheddar?


Cheddaring is a specific way to separate the whey from the curd, otherwise, cheese making is similar everywhere. But the biggest difference to alpine cheeses lies in the milk. In alpine regions, the cows can graze on meadows with more than 100 different species of herbs and grasses. This makes the milk very special, and every region, every area, has a different composition of plants. Alpine cheeses are genuine “terroir" cheeses. Therefore, the milk comes in many different varieties (but all with a lot of taste). It is practically impossible to have the same kind of biodiversity in the lowlands. In the lowlands, the variety is much smaller, therefore the milks are more unified.


Can your cheeses be tracked to their producer? 


All our cheeses are obtained directly from the producer. The producers all have an EU-certification. This certification shows you the exact location of the cheesemaker (also shown on our website). 


Are alpine cheeses safe to be consumed while pregnant?


The UK Chief Medical Officer suggests you avoid cheeses made with unpasteurised milk while pregnant. But the Chief Medical Officer does not make any distinction between soft cheeses and long matured hard cheeses – probably because they are not on his radar at all. The Swiss government's health authority, the BAG (Bundesamt für Gesundheit) advises for pregnancy: "Fresh and soft cheeses made from raw milk are rather listeria pathogenic than long matured raw milk cheeses like Sbrinz, Gruyère and other alpine hard cheeses. These cheeses hardly ever contain any listeriosis. If at all, then in the rind. If you want to be extra careful, don't eat the rind." We agree with that: the rind of a matured cheese is not to be eaten, it is not a great pleasure – the rind is there to protect the cheese and to help it getting its great taste.  

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