When it comes to cheese varieties the French can claim 365 cheeses, Italy over 400, but the real champions seem to be the Swiss; according to some sources the little landlocked Alpine country has over 450 different varieties to offer. It might all be cheesy chest thumping (in all three cases) – after all the distinctions between some cheese sorts are feeble to say the least – but it gives an idea of the cheese-making tradition of these countries. One could ask why there is so little to choose from abroad. You can walk into a European metropolitan supermarket and you'll find tens of French and Italian cheeses (though almost always more of the former) but always the same three-four Swiss ones. Be it London, Berlin or Rome, you'll inevitably see Emmenthaler, Gruyere and maybe one or two between Appenzeller, Tete de Moine and Sbrinz on sale. Where are the other 445?
I suspected that, given Switzerland's size, the best stuff never really gets out of the 26 cantons. After all connecting a country with such a cheese-making tradition mainly with pretty tasteless supermarket Emmenthaler, or even worse its imitations. To test if my idea was right, what could have been better than a little cheese shopping directly on location, exactly what I did on my visit to Zurich a few month's ago. Thanks to my Swiss friend and guest Boris I had a destination, Dettling Kaese-spezialgeschaeft, and at least one cheese to look for, Freiburger Käse (aka Freyburger Vacherin).
If you're thinking gourmet boutique, you're miles away. Dettling is a little shop, with no showy displays of cheese upon cheese, rather little more than a minimalist cheese display, a little refrigerated section for milk and other fresh products and little else. The two old ladies in the shop and the atmosphere reminded me so much of my Italian neighbourhood grocery stores that I had to stop myself from talking Italian instead of German, both foreign languages here (at least German is closer to Schweitzerdeutsch than Italian is). At first I was slightly disappointed, the six or so cheeses on display did not exactly speak for the shop, and they seemed to have no Freiburger, but I have long learned that it is always worth asking for what you're looking for even if it is not there, especially in small old fashioned food shops: you might be surprised. And surprised I was; at my enquiry the lady disappeared into the walk in fridge, which I had at first mistaken for a rear exit, and one after the other a number of cheeses not on display appeared. Dettling might seem a simple grocery store, but it is a hidden gem where you can find some incredible Swiss cheeses, properly ripened cheese as only a real affineur could do.
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Below are my notes on the cheeses I bought from Dettling, just a little teaser.
Boris told me the Swiss think Sbrinz is the forefather of Parmigiano and Grana; I don't know if this is historically true, but there are definitely a lot of contact points between these cheeses. The Sbrinz I tasted reminded me in particular of the young Grana that is made in Trentino; the paste is grainy and crumbly, though slightly more elastic than that of Grana or Parmigiano, and the taste is rich, salty and slightly sour, with clear aromas of cream and mountain herbs.
Bergkaese is a general term for cheeses produced on the high alpine pastures during the short period cows spend there. At first look, with its yellow paste and grey mouldy rind, I put it into the category of cheeses, like Tomme de Savoie or Tuma Piemontese, i.e. mellow mountain cheeses with character. I could not have been more wrong. This Bergkaese might not have been the most seducing of the lot but it was definitely a taste roller-coaster: at first it is buttery and mellow, then more salty and piquant leaving at the end intense herbs and mushroom aromas in the mouth.
Among the lot Dettling's Gruyere is probably the only one close to the commercial product available worldwide, which speaks more for the quality of commercial gruyere than against Dettling's cheese. This gruyere had the typical firm but elastic paste of pressed cheeses and a rich creamy aroma with light salty and pleasantly bitter notes.
When I think of my ideal Alpine cheese, something very close to this comes to mind. Boris sure knew what he was saying when he advised me to give it a go. It has a rich buttery taste which is balanced by a slight saltines and the fine but intense aroma which lasts incredibly long. A real world-class cheese.
Would a properly ripened Emmenthaler finally dismiss my low opinion of this cheese? Or would I strike Emmenthaler off my cheese list forever? I was quite curious to see how this one would fare. Simply put, if all Emmenthaler imitations would taste like this, the world would be a happier place: rich and incredibly aromatic, with the typical bitter notes stronger but at the same time much more rounded than in any other Emmenthaler I had before. A real surprise.