MOUNTAINS OF FLAVOR, BUT WITHOUT THE MOUNTAINS
Alpine Style Cheese in Wisconsin
It is often said that the development of artisan cheese in the United States is an alchemy between the traditions of Europe and the innovations America is known for. Alpine-style cheeses made in Wisconsin are wonderful examples of how methods have been adapted from the mountains of Switzerland to the new dairy landscape. Fewer mountains for sure, but glorious rolling hills, especially the Driftless Region provide perfect grazing pastures.
Alpines are among my most favorite style of cheese. The flavors are rich and have wonderful depth, kind of roasty toasty, rich in umami. If you close your eyes as you taste, you get intimations of potatoes, onions, celery. These cheeses are fantastic for cooking, potatoes au gratin, on top of french onion soup (even better than provolone!), in quiches,
Alpine style cheeses are characterized by several factors. These cheeses were created to be sturdy and have longevity(that is, the ability to age out for a long time). In their country of origin, these wheels are huge! They can weigh up to 80 pounds! When you think about it, these characteristics really are the product of their environment. Making cheese in mountains has some pretty obvious challenges. It is difficult to transport things up and down the rugged terrain, so no flimsy, delicate cheeses are pretty much out of the question. The large format allowed for better efficiency when moving the cheese.
Salt is another element the cheesemakers had to accommodate in the olden days. Often, salt is added directly to the curds in the vat. In mountain cheesemaking, salt needs to be used more sparingly but yet it must be used. The method these cheesemakers used is to brine the cheese. In this way, the cheese absorbs the salt it needs. An additional effect of this method is that brining the cheese creates a rind. Rind formation is hugely important to the maturation of the cheese. Firstly, it forms a protective barrier. The cheese does not dry out. Further, the treatment of the rind while it ages actually moves the flavor development forward.
Pasturing has been a hallmark of cheesemaking in Switzerland with the tradition of transhumance, which is the practice of moving the herds up the mountains in the springtime, from pasture to glorious pasture. The vast variety of forage is essential to the quality of the milk the cows produce, and is of course expressed in the flavors of the cheeses that are produced. Often the cheese produced are governed by a set of laws called AOP, or appellation de controlee. These measures are in place to preserve the historical integrity and sense of terroir, giving a true sense of place and legacy.
Swiss immigrants began arriving in Wisconsin throughout the 19th century, and between 1850 and 1860 tripled. Just for context, Wisconsin was granted statehood in 1848. The emigration was driven of course by economic factors, and the immigrants quickly were drawn to the possibilities that the terrain offered for dairying and cheesemaking.
There are several cheesemakers in the state that excel at alpine style cheeses, and their awards are breathtaking!
First and foremost, Uplands Cheese invented the great grand-daddy of all American artisan cheeses when they created Pleasant Ridge Reserve. It recalls its alpine roots in its style. Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude worked with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in an attempt to showcase the beautiful milk that the cows produced on the Upland farm. Although the herd does not have mountain pastures to roam, the farm practices an interesting form of pasturing called rotational grazing. In this style of pasturing, the cows are moved onto fresh pasture every twelve hours! The cows have access to an abundant variety of forage. Further benefits from this practice are fertile soil, less harvesting and hauling of food, less erosion, less pollution. It is highly sustainable!
Naturally, this means that Pleasant Ridge Reserve can only be made when the cows are actually out on the pasture. Therefore, it is a seasonal cheese. When the cows are obliged to change their diet due to the changing seasons, the essential nature of the milk itself changes, and Pleasant Ridge production must halt until the following Spring. We are used to cheeses being available year round, always the same. We never think about the fact that cows and pastures have seasonality, and this cheese is our connection to these natural rhythms.
The make process of this cheese follows traditional alpine-style dictates. The rind is washed several times a week until the rind is formed, and the cheese is carefully tended for up to two years in the aging rooms. Over time, the flavors develop and the texture becomes harder.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve is the most highly awarded cheese in America! It has won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society three times, as well as the US Cheese Championship in 2003. Truly amazing, truly well deserved.
The last time I visited Uplands was in September of 2018 with my cheese colleagues from Kowalski’s. We received a tour of their aging rooms, and we spied, tucked on a rack in the back, an 80 pound wheel of this amazing cheese, and we purchased it as a Kowalski’s exclusive. Andy Hatch himself came to our store to split the wheel in a fantastic public event. I love how the big wheel showcases a granular texture. The flavor was superb.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve is so rich and flavorful, hearty with complex layers of nuts and a sweetness reminiscent of toasted pineapple. It is a delight to nibble with nuts and fruit, maybe with a cracker, maybe not.