The Cheese With a Secret: Appenzeller Cheese

Switzerland’s Appenzeller cheese, one of the most recognized alpine varieties, has a long history.

Switzerland produces over 750 varieties of cheeses. That’s a lot of production for such a small country, considering one can travel end-to-end by train in less than eight hours. The alpine landscape of Switzerland plays a strong role in the endurance of the cheese industry. So it’s no surprise that for every person, there are five cows and that half of the dairy milk produc- tion goes into making cheese. Yes, truly it’s quite the cheesy country. The architects of this glorious product? Swiss Brown cows can be seen almost everywhere in sum- mer, where they graze on the lush buffet of green grass that covers the alpine meadows from May to October.

One of the Alp’s most recognized cheeses, Appenzeller, originates from the Eastern region of Switzerland where alpine herdsmen having been making it for over 700 years. The charming historic village of Appenzell is nestled within the rolling hills of Appenzell Innerrhoden, the smallest canton of Switzerland. The village, with a population of 7,000, is considered to be the cultural center of the canton. Time- honored traditions centered around dairy farming are still practiced where visitors can attend local events and festivals, such as the cattle drive up to the alpine pastures in May. This is where a procession of deco- rated dairy cows, with bells, of course, are led by herdsmen wearing traditional festive costumes. Once the cows reach the pas- tures, the herdsmen sing yodeling songs.

A Storied History

When an abbatial estate was built in 1071, cultivation and settlement began tak- ing place in the mountain valleys, which led to farming on the Alpstein Alps. Farmers tended their alpine green meadows that were mainly situated on the sunny side of hills between 500 and 1,000 meters above sea level. Grazing during the summer, lead- ing the cows to the grasslands of the Alps was a method of protecting the fodder crops in the lower valleys.

The first mention of a hard cow’s milk cheese was noted in a document written in 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. The cheese was highly regarded for its unique spicy flavor derived from an herbal brine and rub placed on the rind surface as it aged. Each farmer devel- oped their own distinctive brine based on their environment, passing down the rec- ipe within the family. Cheese was a main staple of food and main source of income, making anything to do with the lifestyle of producing cheese a valuable skill and trade, including management of the pastures.

Now, Appenzeller cheese is produced as it was 700 years ago using tradi- tional artisan methods in around 50 local cheese dairies following an original recipe. However, the Appenzeller Schaukäserei (Demonstration Dairy), is where visitors can learn about the process of Appenzeller cheesemaking, yet the secret of the herbal brine remains as cherished today as it was hundreds of years ago. Only a few peo- ple know the recipe, and it’s still a closely guarded secret.

A Unique Blend

A hint to discovering the herbs, flow- ers, roots, etc., used in the blend is to visit the Alpstein grassland landscape where cows roam. On the high Alps, years ago, farms dotted the steep meadows where three wooden buildings identified the location of a cheesemaking farm. A three- room alpine hut provided the herdsmen living quarters and was where the cheese and butter were made. There was also a cowshed and a small pigsty where pigs finished off the remnants of the cheese and butter process. In these times, herds- men made cheese inside their hut, where a vat (copper tub) hung from the ceiling beams, suspended over an open fire. The herdsman owned his land and his herd of cows, lived with them on these remote mountain pastures and, during winter, drove the cattle from one hay farmer to another in the valleys below.

In Appenzellerland, cheese and butter have always traditionally been made on the mountain range. The products were then picked up by the dairyman, who would visit every one or two weeks with pack horses. He would load two wooden hold- ers with the farmer’s butter and cheese, then take them down the valley below to a dairy where the cheese was matured. Afterwards, the mature cheese was brought to market. The cow herdsmen and the dairyman worked together, somewhat like partners. One processed the milk and the other took away the dairy products to market. They relied on each other for the success of their livelihood.

A herdsman worked from dawn to dusk milking; feeding the animals; making cheese and butter; trimming hooves; clearing meadows for cows to graze; chopping wood; searching for strays; and more. Now, community pastures are tended by several farmers in Appenzellerland and, instead of milking the cows by hand twice a day, regional milk processing companies take care of the process and take the milk from the herdsmen to the cheesemaking dairies.

The natural organic, raw milk of the leg- endary Swiss brown cows is undoubtedly the number one key ingredient to making Appenzeller cheese. In the early summer months, the bovines are taken to the high- est pastures to dine on the freshest new spring growth of grass, wildflowers and herbs. The flavors of the alpine diet, blended with summer breezes and sunshine, make happy cows, which in turn produce a fla- vorful enhanced milk for making cheese. Their diet is solely mountain grass fed.

But it wouldn’t be Appenzeller cheese without the secret brine. Hike the Alps and visit the alpage, the higher meadows, to scout out herbaceous ingredients that could be included in the brine or visit the Appenzeller Schaukäserei. Showcased in the new demonstration area are clues to what’s in the secret mix. A strong scent of dried herbs permeates the air. A large rectangular table with fresh dried herbs in wooden buckets is available for visitors to shake out a few herbs and sniff the aroma.

Each herb is labeled and a small cloth bag is offered to spoon in a mix of your own choosing to take home. Oregano, rose- mary, sage and tarragon are just a few of the herbs that could be in the mix.

Nobody knows the exact herbs or measurement to create the brine and rub for the cheese, as it is under lock and key, but we do know that this method and technique produces the flavor and aroma unique to Appenzeller cheese. There’s a combination of 25 different herbs, roots, leaves, petals, seeds and bark that is said to make up the herb portion of the secret recipe. A brine is made from the herb mixture and the yeast from the local wines. The liquid brine is then frequently rubbed on the surface of the cheese along the rind during the aging process, which eventually permeates throughout the cheese.

Appenzeller cheese is aged from three to six months. As the cheese ages, it develops a nutty flavor, and the aromas and flavors from the herbal rub become more enhanced, lending to the spicy overtones. A few pea-sized holes dot the cheese. The rind gets thicker as it ages and varies from a brownish to orangish layer.