Not all cheese are created equally. Adam H. Graham carves out a slice of Switzerland for tourists in search of quality curds and whey.
There’s no such thing as ‘Swiss Cheese’ in Switzerland. At least not the kind you ask for on your sandwich at a deli. The tiny country produces dozens of AOP-protected cheeses (Appellation d’Origine Protegée), each with its own unique time-honoured recipe and flavour. Some are for melting, others for sandwiches, and many are meant to be eaten on their own. It takes a bit of knowhow to sort it all out, so where does an untrained cheese tourist begin? First of all, any cheese visit to Switzerland should focus on hard cheeses. Our neighbour to the west, France, makes much better soft cheeses, so the focus of this story will be on the hard stuff, which best expresses Switzerland’s cheese-making heritage.
Known for its yodelling culture and beer, Appenzell is one of Switzerland’s best cheese regions. Though it’s home to the 2,500-metre high Säntis Mountain, offering glorious views of six countries on clear days, the landscape is better characterised by barn-studded rolling hills and wildflower-munching cows, more reminiscent of Vermont or the English countryside than the snowy Alps. Because of this, it remains an under-rated destination that’s especially favoured by Swiss travellers.
The Appenzeller cheese is the reason many visit. It comes in three main categories:, Classic, Surchoix and Extra as well as a new organic and low fat version. Like most Swiss cheeses, it’s made exclusively with raw unpasteurised milk which gives it its uniquely creamy, smooth richness. Its rind is also brushed with a secret ingredient giving it a slightly piquant flavour that the Swiss endearingly call scharf (spicy) though it’s not remotely spicy at all to the outside palette. It is however, delicious — plain, melted, on sandwiches, or in Alpine Macaroni, a traditional mac-and-cheese dish often served with fried onions, potatoes and applesauce and one of the most delicious carb bombs you’ll ever taste.
There are dozens of restaurants in its capital, also called Appenzell, but the fascinating Schaukaserei in the village of Stein is a ‘show dairy’ where you can watch giant robotic machines flip wheels of cheese and eat an adjacent ‘stubli’ that plates up satisfying, bowls of silky käserahmsuppe (cream cheese soup) and fluffy käsekuchen (cheese pie). Don’t miss the shop stocked with local butter, milk, meat and cheese, and other creamy goodies ideal for soothing a sore over-yodelled throat. For those who want something a little stronger, Appenzell’s local beer is also a highlight and the Brewery Locher in town is the place to sample its range of brews, many of which pair well with cheese. There’s also an excellent local whisky called Säntis Malt (nicknamed Swisky by industry insiders) that’s making a range of excellent expressions, some using local peat moss and water.
Bilingual Canton Fribourg is another must-see cheese destination. During a visit this past July, I posted Facebook photos of my family dipping into a caquelon pot filled with bubbling cheese and my Swiss German friends in Zurich went berserk commenting how only tourists eat fondue in the summer. Well it turns out they’re wrong. In French-speaking Switzerland where Fondue was invented, (ahem) fondue is eaten year round, regardless of the weather. “I eat it about once a week,” says Sabrina Rappo at the tourism office. It was a sentiment echoed by her colleagues, local chefs, and cheese-makers who I spoke with during a follow-up visit.
It is however, delicious — plain, melted, on sandwiches, or in Alpine Macaroni, a traditional mac-and-cheese dish often served with fried onions, potatoes and applesauce and one of the most delicious carb bombs you’ll ever taste.
But there’s much more to Fribourg than fondue. Because it lacks the alps, it’s also mistakenly overlooked by tourists. The hillock-perched Château de Gruyères and the surrounding fortified village is one of the most beautiful scenes in Switzerland and enhanced by sampling some AOP-protected Gruyère cheese, prized for its rich, nutty mature flavour. I took my visiting family from the U.S. to Auberge de la Halle in the centre of Gruyère village, where my niece and nephew had their first taste of fondue, but the restaurant also turned out gooey raclette á discretion (all you can eat raclette — melted raclette cheese on potatoes), fluffy quiche Gruérienne and macaroni de chalet, a Swiss-French version of Alpine macaroni.
The La Maison du Gruyère is an excellent way to learn about the cheese. Gruyère was Switzerland’s first luxury product and has been exported from Fribourg since at least the 12th-century. Its shop is stocked with delightful goodies — like Gruyère double cream local meats and cheeses — all shrink-wrapped and travel-ready. Those who want a deeper look into the region’s cheesy heritage should visit Bulle’s Musée gruérien, which takes visitors on a 3,000-year journey to the region’s Celtic and Roman past. Still hankering for cheese knowledge?
But my Fribourg visits have been especially rewarding for the cuisine, verifying the theory that the closer you get to France, the better the food. At Au Sauvage, located in Fribourg’s charming old town, Chef Serge Chenaux uses a variety of local cheeses in more modern dishes like suckling pig with blue cheese and spinach fondue, and tender hunks of monkfish with Gruyère crisps. Want fondue on the beach? You can get a pretty good moitié-moitie fondue (half Gruyère, half Vacherin Fribourgeois) on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel at Alphasurf in the ancient village of Estavayer-le-Lac. But my favourite cheese encounter was in Charmey, where I watched the cheerful, rosy-cheeked Gérard Biland make Le Gruyère d’Alpage AOP in his alpine hut. His beautiful mountain perched restaurant, Buvette les Invouettes, serves a variety of cheese dishes and fondues.
And no cheese tour to Switzerland would be complete without a visit to Emmental, home of the famed Emmental AOC cheese — the closest thing to what foreigners think of as ‘Swiss cheese’ — the buttery and extra hard cow’s milk cheese with holes in it. Visitors can download a free iPhone app to do an e-bike tour along Emmental’s cheese route, a 78-kilometre circuit with several stops where you can deepen your knowledge about rennet, milk and curds. Stops include the Show Dairy in Küherstock built in 1741 and where visitors can make their own cheese and Käserei Hüpfenboden run by Bernhard Meier, a Slow Food member and producer of an excellent Gotthelf Emmentaler and a Hegenloch Bergkäse. Another worthwhile point of interest not on the trail is the Kemmeriboden restaurant where you can sample buffalo mozzarella made from local buffalo’s milk.
One specialty cheese-maker not based in any of the regions mentioned above but worth seeking out is Willi Schmid, based in the village of Lichtensteig in Canton St. Gallen. Willi’s famous for his artisan cheese varieties like Jersey Blue and Blue Buffalo and his olfactory ability to determine which cow produced which cheese by smell. A forthcoming documentary about him is due in 2016.
Happily for folks making their stay in Andermatt, none of these cheese-centric destinations are too far of a journey from the central Swiss hideaway. But if one can’t be bothered to leave this sleepy Swiss town, The Chedi Andermatt also has a reputable cheese cellar which carries the lion’s share of notable Swiss cheeses for your tasting delight, and boasting a menu which plays with many of these local delicacies, one can never get too far off of the cheese trail while making a holiday in the central Alps of Switzerland’s heartland.
(Featured image: A typical Appenzell farmhouse with the village of Appenzell in the background – Photograph courtesy of Switzerland Tourism.)