Cheese lovers around the world extol French Comté, Swiss Gruyère and Italian Fontina Val D’Aosta, yet just across the border in Austria, the cheesemaking tradition remains relatively unknown. High-quality cheese has been made in Austria for centuries, from fresh, creamy cheeses to hearty Alpine tommes. Although producers have been at it for a long time, they are only beginning to get recognized here in the United States, where those Alpine treasures are just starting to arrive. It’s an exciting time to enjoy and celebrate the gorgeous cheeses coming out of Austria.
Many of Austria’s cheeses are “extremely interesting, highly traditional and largely unknown,” says Jonathan Richardson, national sales manager at Columbia Cheese, which imports specialty cheeses from Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and more. Although much of the industry has had to consolidate in order to survive, creating larger and more industrial production structures, artisan cheesemakers are thriving in Austria and beyond. Elizabeth, NJ-based Columbia Cheese aims to be a bridge between the “best of these traditional areas to the best customers in the U.S.,” who really love great cheese with plenty of character. For these cheese lovers, it’s very simple. As Richardson says, “the proof is in the cheese.”
Bergkäse, which translates to “mountain cheese,” is a longstanding tradition in the Austrian Alps. It’s the Austrian answer to Gruyère, a typical product of the region, usually made in large format wheels with partially skimmed, unpasteurized milk. Like Comté and Gruyère, these cheeses have been made for countless generations—they share the same basic method, perfected over centuries. Yet, each cheesemaker’s output is unique. Their cheeses are expressions of the subtle differences in milk, impacted by the array of hearty mountain herbs and grasses in each cow’s diet. And each season yields its own bouquet of flavors and aromas, similar to vintages of wine.
With “2000 years of farming under their belt,” says Richardson, Bergkäse is steeped in tradition of people who move from the alpine mountain pastures, 6,000 feet above sea level, in the summer. During the cold, long winters, they head down in altitude to the valley villages, taking their cows with them along this route.
Austria’s westernmost Bregenzerwald region sits between Lake Constance and Arlberg and encompasses the storybook Bregenz Forest—it’s like a real-life fairytale. Many of the cheeses are made here only in the warm summer months—July and August—in small chalets rather than communal dairies. The milk is heated in copper vats with wood-burning fires. Sparks fly, dropping an occasional cinder into the vat and imbuing the cheese with a subtle smoky, woodsy flavor.
“It’s like going into a time machine,” Richardson says. “There’s a certain Lord of the Rings element. The farmers rake grasses all summer long with these special tools, handmade with wood, to make hay for the winter. On the one hand, you want to take them to Home Depot, and on the other hand you hope they never discover that it exists.”
In Bregenzerwald, about 20 small village dairies make cheese year-round, and in the summer, that number expands to more than 100. Most of the cheese never leaves the region. “There’s not a huge market because there’s just not enough cheese,” explains Richardson.
You can taste the difference between the cheese made only during the summer, when the cows graze on wildflowers, herbs and grasses that translate into floral, rich and complex aromas and flavors versus the still delicious but less nuanced varieties made from hay-fed herds. Almost always crafted from raw milk and aged for somewhere around 10 months, the smooth wheels may be dotted with pea-sized eyes. The nutty, sweet mountain cheeses are perfect for snacking with apples, melting into fondue or making a grilled cheese sandwiches on pumpernickel.
The Bregenzerwald Cheese Road
If you’re a fan of babbling mountain brooks, dense forests fragrant with the smell of trees, rolling meadows—and cheese!—The Cheese Road in Vorarlberg is a dreamy destination. Bregenzerwald’s KäseStrasse (Cheese Street) is perfect for hikers and nature lovers…and it goes without saying, cheese connoisseurs: there are more than 60 varieties of cheeses to try here. Consisting of 17 valley dairies and 90 alpine farmsteads, the “cheese road” isn’t exactly a traditional road, but a collaboration of local producers that allows guests to experience the behind-the-scenes work in every stage, from raising herds to maturing cheese in the Lingenau cheese cellar, where 32,000 wheels of mountain cheese may be carefully aging on traditional wooden boards at any one time.
Tucked in the valleys are cozy, rural villages that look like they’ve popped up from a movie. The small towns may be quiet, but they’re not exactly sleepy—the peaceful, wood-paneled houses are home to a wonderful restaurant scene, serving everything from soul-satisfying homemade schnitzel to creative fine dining creations. Try the Bergkäse in local specialties, like Vorarlberg Kässpätzle, cheesy spaetzle with roasted onions or cream cheese soup. At the Andelsbuch cheese center, guests can purchase cheese to ship home and take a guided tour that ends with a schnapps and cheese tasting.
Visit the Alpine Dairy Farming Museum in Hittisau, where you can see a 300-year-old dairy kitchen and learn about the rich tradition of milk and cheese in the area. Learning about the background can help with marketing these cheeses.
While it’s easy to romanticize the region with all its pastoral beauty, these are living, breathing places where hardworking farmers traverse hard-to-reach mountain landscapes to practice their craft every day: milking cows and transforming their milk into cheese. They labor day in and day out to care for their livestock and cultivate their land, which is often ravaged by tough wind and weather. It’s a living, breathing tradition that requires arduous work, serious commitment and hard-won expertise that has been perfected over generations.
Since 1995, Sennerei Hittisau has been crafting Hittisau, made exclusively from heumilch (hay-milk) in the Bregenz region. In 1977, representatives of the region brought together farmers from surrounding hamlets to create a village dairy in Hittisau. Their first product was Emmentaler, a popular cheese supported by the Swiss Cheese Union. But the dairy wanted to make a unique cheese that would showcase their high-quality milk, the terroir of their home and the vision of their dairy. Hence, Hittisau was born. Over the years, they shifted away from making Emmentaler and turned their focus to Hittisau. They also produce butter.
Hittisau is a cooperative cheese, made from milk from 160-member family farmers, all who are located within a handful of miles from the dairy on Hochhaederich, an alpine peak known as an ideal grazing area in the region. The average herd size is five to 10 Brown Swiss cows who graze on alpine pasture in summer; cut grass is dried into hay for winter.
“The dairies we work with have incredibly close relationships with their farmers,” explains Richardson. “When we visit, we go to each milk supplier and ride in the tractor as the fresh milk is brought right into the dairy.”
This excellent milk translates into a mild yet nuanced cheese with a firm, smooth texture, redolent of fresh herbs and the mountain pastures, made into 65-pound wheels and aged for about five months.
Sennerei (which means “creamery”) Huban was founded in 1901 as a coop and the first cheese school in Austria, right near the Swiss and German borders. Today, the dairy is a 34-member coop, with each farmer looking after an average herd of about 15 Brown Swiss cows within a few short miles of the Sennerei. The dense, silky smooth 8- to 10-pound wheels of Hubaner are made with raw whole milk and matured for roughly seven months, during which time they develop brown butter and caramel notes and a bit of spice on the finish. The cheese is subtle but in no way boring, with a walnut-color rind.
Alpe Loche is hard to get your hands on—only one wheel is made each day by the Fuchs family, and only in the summertime, in the Allgäu Alps, where they raise, breed and sell dairy cattle. Cars cannot access this high-altitude location, and that’s on purpose. The original lodges have had to be rebuilt twice when avalanches did serious damage. The Fuchs’ lodge—a milking chalet—is perched at the very top of the mountain. The entirety of the herd’s milk production each day goes into a single wheel of cheese. Less than 100 wheels are crafted each year.
When fall arrives, the Fuchs pack up their herd and head back down the mountain into the village. When he’s not tending to his herd and making cheese, Norbert Fuch competes in triathalons—he and Richardson joined up for a triathlon in the German Allgäu cheesemaking region, and they are participating in another triathlon later this year.
Alpe Loche, which is aged for over a year in a cool stone cellar underneath the Fuchs’s home, bursts with all the grassy complexity that comes from cows allowed to graze on their lush pastures. Each wheel is absolutely distinct; a cheese snowflake. Some have notes of pineapple and guava, while others have a metallic tang on the finish, and others are aromatic with burnt chocolate or curing ham. Alpe Loche is full of Bavarian character and isn’t short on kick. Pair with a crisp, cold ale, if you’re lucky enough to enjoy some.
Richardson says it best, “If you close your eyes and really enjoy the cheeses, you can touch another world.” DB