The spicy Swiss cheese you never knew you loved
Appenzellerland, set between the Alps and Lake Constance in the northeast region of Switzerland, is a place where traditions are closely guarded and time is a relative term. In fact, as I walk through the car-free village of Appenzell, with its candy colored, chalet-style houses, quaint restaurants and whimsical displays of garden elves lining the sidewalks, it’s the anachronism of brightly clad tourists taking selfies on their iPhones that reminds me I’m actually in the 21st century.
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I am told that in this, the smallest canton in Switzerland, Appenzell Innerrhoden, women weren’t granted the right to vote until 1991, and there’s a 16th-century tradition called Silvesterchlausen during which people don demonic masks, dress as trees, and run through the streets inadvertently scaring small children every New Year’s Eve to frighten off the evil spirits. While voting rights are equal these days and most residents realize Silvesterchlausen is just a quirky celebration memorializing the region’s storied past, there are some traditions best kept, and cheesemaking in Appenzellerland is one of them.
The making of Appenzeller, the famed but perhaps lesser known of the many Swiss cheeses, has been taking place in this region for more than 700 years, though evidence of the first human inhabitants dates back approximately 30,000 years. The thick forests of Appenzellerland were cleared around the eighth century in order to make space for settlements and cattle breeding.
In the year 1069, the abbey of St. Galen built a settlement called Abbacella (meaning “settlement”), from which the current name of Appenzell is derived. The hard cow’s milk cheese, Appenzeller, known for its spicy undertones, was first mentioned in documents dating from the year 1282, when the people of Appenzell used the cheese they produced as a tithe to the church, thus giving it to the monks at the Abbey of St. Galen.
What Makes Appenzeller Special
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The production of Appenzeller cheese is highly regulated and is limited to only four cantons: Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden, plus parts of St. Gallen and Thurgau. One thing that sets Appenzeller cheese apart from its other Swiss counterparts is the distinctive herbal brine that is rubbed on the cheese before it begins the aging process. The hills and dales of this area of Switzerland are rife with herbal meadows, and purported ingredients for the brine include cloves, tarragon, juniper, rosemary, sage and white wine. But the full list and precise measurements literally remain under lock and key.
You may have heard of the traditional herbal spirit Appenzeller Alpenbitter, first created in the area in 1902, and made with 42 local herbs and spices. The distinctive alcohol is said to cure stomach ailments, and its recipe — a hard copy locked deep inside a formidable Swiss bank vault — is also a closely guarded secret known to only two living men. It is suspected that the ingredients in the concoction rubbed on the Appenzeller cheese is similar to that of the famed Appenzeller liquor.
Another reason that Appenzeller cheese is so special is the quality of the milk produced by the region’s legendary Brown Swiss cows. The animals’ Alpine diet consists of the freshest grasses, herbs and flowers, which creates enticing, highly-seasoned flavors in the milk they produce, thus passing the flavor along to the cheese. Like many other cheesemaking regions of Switzerland, cows in Appenzellerland are moved to higher elevations during the summer months in order to graze on the new spring growth.
Visitors to the region can still see the spectacle of herdsmen dressed in traditional costumes, and cows sporting flower crowns and wreaths, as they parade up the mountains after the winter snows have melted, and back down in the autumn before the first snow of the season. You can almost see the swagger of the lead cows (chosen for their age or milk-producing prowess) as they saunter up the mountain, proudly wearing the largest cowbells as a sign of their elevated rank. With cows this loved, it’s no wonder the milk they produce is among the highest quality in the world.
While the fat content of Appenzeller may vary, all varieties call for raw milk and natural calf rennet. The youngest cheese in the Appenzeller family is a mild, one-quarter fat variety that ages a minimum of six weeks, while the more mature siblings are aged anywhere from six to eight months. During the aging process, the herbal brine is applied regularly, infusing it with flavor as an oak cask does to a fine Chardonnay.
There are about 60 cheese dairies in the Appenzeller region, and local farmers who have only 20 to 30 cows each deliver milk to them twice daily. This is truly a small-batch product. After each delivery, the master cheesemaker then skims part of the raw milk to ensure the closely-monitored fat content of the finished product. The liquid is then poured into 6,000-liter vats, where it’s heated and stirred, and finally rennet and lactic acid bacteria are added. After 30 or 40 minutes of heating and stirring with a cheese harp, the small grains of curd separate from the whey. The concoction is then placed in a round mold that will create a 7-kilogram wheel.
Every wheel of Appenzeller is given a cheese certificate that states the cheese dairy number, the guarantee of origin, the production date and a consecutive number, helping to ensure the high standards the world expects from Swiss-made cheeses. Finally, it’s placed in the special herbal brine bath that’s meant to release liquid, absorb salt and form a rind — all very important conditions concerning the taste, shelf life and storage ability of the Appenzeller. Lastly, the wheels are whisked away to a cellar with a temperature of 15° C and a relative humidity of 90 percent. Here the wheels are placed on shelves for several months in order to reach their full flavor, during which time they are turned regularly and treated to baths in the secretive herbal brine.
Appenzeller Cheese Today
In Switzerland, it was first possible to register a cheese product for copyright in the 1920s, and Appenzeller was registered as a brand in 1942. Since then it’s been a closely guarded secret. And since Appenzellerland was relatively unknown to the outside world, Appenzeller cheese wasn’t copied outside the country like other varieties such as Emmentaler. While Appenzeller may not be the best known of the Swiss cheeses, it’s gaining a worldwide following. Almost two-thirds of production is exported to the European region, while connoisseurs ranging from the Far East to the United States, where it’s distributed by Emmi USA, enjoy 3 percent.
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A visit to the Appenzeller show dairy is a must for cheese lovers, as well as those interested in learning about the history and culture of the local region. Giant sculpture wedges of Appenzeller cheese greet guests arriving in the parking lot, and kids play on the cheese shaped playground just outside the front door. All gimmicks aside, this is a real working dairy dating from 1997, where visitors are led by a guide (or a self guided iPod tour) to watch as the master cheese makers create dairy magic. From the viewing platform, look down on the dairy floor to watch the all white-clad employees stir, pour, press and dip the cheese, going through all phases of production, and following in the centuries-old cheese traditions of their forefathers — albeit with a few modern additions.
The tour ends up in the impressive cheese cellar, where 12,500 wheels of Appenzeller are in various stages of maturation. Afterwards, take a stroll through the well-stocked gift shop that sells everything from microwavable fondue to cheese-themed thatches and, of course, the famed Appenzeller cheese itself. There’s also a rustic-chic, wood-paneled restaurant where visitors can indulge in a cheese tasting or sample traditional Swiss food and hearty cheese dishes. Fondue anyone?
After my Appenzeller crash course at the show dairy, it’s time to indulge in a cheesy lunch. Although it’s extremely difficult to choose only one out of Appenzellerland’s 600 restaurants, I head to the quaint Romantik Hotel Säntis Gourmet Restaurant in the historic town square, where the people’s assembly (a 600-year-old tradition of voting by raising one’s right hand on the last Sunday in April) takes place. From the restaurant’s cheese-themed menu, I choose the macaroni and cheese — made with Appenzeller, of course. As a lifelong mac and cheese fan, I’m in heaven eating the rich, piquant dish topped with fried onions, its zesty, slightly nutty flavors leaving an herbaceous aftertaste lingering on my tongue.
Stomach full, I wander back onto Appenzell’s main street, ardently hoping that the cheesemaking tradition in this corner of the world is one that will last at least another 700 years.