If you’re in the mood for stellar cheese these days, it’s time to celebrate: some cheeses are exclusively available during the winter season. These primarily cow’s milk cheeses are flavorful due to the specific types of feed consumed by the cows at the time of milking. For example, the soft, runny cheeses currently on the shelves were made with winter milk, which has a high butterfat content and a rich, luxuriant taste. In contrast, the hard, aged Swiss mountain cheeses crafted with flavorful spring/summer milk from cows munching on new hay and wildflowers have also just hit peak flavor.
I particularly recommend two soft washed-rind cheeses, both made from winter milk in the renowned Vacherin Mont d’Or style. The first: Petit Vaccarinus, a smallish (one-pound) cheese that hails from the Jura region of Switzerland. Named after the monk who allegedly first produced Vacherin Mont d’Or, this cheese is incredibly gooey and best eaten by the spoonful. Not only is it rich and creamy, but it’s been tied with a beautiful band of spruce bark and looks like a piece of edible art.
Then there’s Rush Creek Reserve, made by cheesemaker extraordinaire Andy Hatch right here in the United States, near Madison, Wisconsin. Similar to the Petit Vaccarinus, Rush Creek Reserve is bound in spruce bark, which helps balance the deep savory flavors of the rind with sweet, woody notes. Meant to be served warm, the interior paste has a custard-like consistency and a deep but subtle richness.
As for the perfect Swiss mountain cheese, a favorite of mine is Willi Schmid’s Bergmatter, introduced to the US by legendary Swiss cheese importer Caroline Hostettler. This is a raw milk cheese produced only when the cows are fed the limited quantities of high-quality fresh hay that was collected during the summer on the Alps. What’s unique about this variety is that it’s been aged for a whole year – the cheesemaker starts selling last year’s wheels only when he begins producing the next batch in September/October. Bergmatter has an irregular rind, but slicing into the cheese reveals a firm, velvety paste. Its flavors are vivid and lively, with hints of flowers and sweet grass. This is an unbelievable cheese: a true standard bearer.
The time frame to produce these cheeses is quite limited – as are the quantities – so don’t delay in seeking them out. Pair them with your favorite sparkling wine, a good Riesling, or a fortified wine, such as Dow’s 2011 Vintage Porto. For an unforgettable seasonal offering, bring a winter cheese to a holiday party and give the gift of an extraordinary tasting experience to your closest friends.