Food by VICE

American Cheese Obsessives Are 'Adopting' Alpine Cheesemakers to Preserve a Fading Tradition

“It seemed like a good way to get our hands on some obscure, off-the-beaten path cheese. What started as curiosity became an obsession."

by Lauren Rothman
Oct 18 2018, 9:44pm

Here in the US, most of us are familiar with a basic set of supermarket cheeses: Cheddar, Parmesan, maybe some jack, and, of course, Swiss, the holey stuff we melt over Reubens, pile onto a ham sandwich, and fold into fluffy diner-style omelets. There’s nothing wrong with this mild, gooey cheese, but for the most part it’s a mass-produced product that does nothing to express the unique characteristics of true Switzerland-made dairy, which has formed the base of the country’s rich culinary tradition for thousands of years.

Switzerland is the birthplace of transhumance, a traditional method of raising livestock that originated in the country about 8,000 years ago. Common in many countries with mountainous regions, from France to China, the practice involves herding milk-producing animals such as cows, goats, and sheep up to higher altitudes during the summer, where the animals feed on sweet grasses and wildflowers that flavor the animals’ milk and result in particularly complex-tasting cheeses.

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Traditionally, dairy farmers and their families accompany their animals into the mountains, living in rustic Alpine homes until cooler weather arrives and it’s time to come back down the mountain with the animals. It’s a nomadic, demanding lifestyle that has been on the decline since the late 19th century, as advancements in farming and production machinery have made industrial cheesemaking—the kind that produces those big bricks of “Swiss” cheese—more attractive and lucrative.

But since 2013, a small group of US cheesemongers has teamed up with traditional Swiss cheesemakers in an effort to preserve the country’s ancient cheesemaking expertise. In that year, Swiss expat and cheese importer Caroline Hostettler started the “Adopt-an-Alp” program, allowing US cheese sellers to “adopt” Alpine cheesemakers who still practice transhumance, bringing those labor-intensive cheeses into their stores and educating their customers on how they were made—and by whom.

Hailing from the small northern Swiss town of Biel, Hostettler and her Swiss husband relocated to Fort Myers, Florida in 1996, and quickly started to pine for the delicious Swiss cheeses to which they could find no equal in their new home. Shortly after the move, Hostettler was talking to her friend Rolf Beeler, a well known cheese affineur, or ager, and complaining about the paltry selection of cheeses in Florida.

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“I said to him, ‘I have to start bringing in your cheeses,’ almost as a joke,” she told MUNCHIES. “And he told me, ‘Well you know, I’ve already had two chefs ask me about importing my cheese.’ That really got the wheels turning.”

Hostettler, a freelance food writer at the time, slowly began to build Quality Cheese, an importer of exclusively Swiss cheeses. Over time, as she deepened her relationships with the traditional cheesemakers of her home country, Hostettler said, she became increasingly fascinated with the practice of transhumance—and increasingly compelled to share that practice with a wider audience.

“I felt a real passion and closeness to people who still do transhumance,” she said. “It has many, many aspects to it. These people live a much healthier lifestyle than most of us, they are more thankful, they are more aware, they don't waste things. And of course, their cheeses taste incredible.”

One night at dinner, Hostettler offhandedly remarked to her husband that she wished more American cheese fans could be exposed to this Swiss labor of love.

“‘We should do something to promote this and make people aware of what this is, because most people have no idea,’ I told him. It just came out of me, the idea was born that night.”

For the first year of Adopt-an-Alp, Hostettler linked six Swiss cheesemakers with 14 US cheese sellers. Over the years, the program has grown, with 25 cheesemakers and 87 cheese sellers participating this year. One of those sellers is Shelley Lewis, owner of Muskegon, Michigan’s The Cheese Lady. A former legal aide, Lewis, a cheese superfan, purchased the store from its former owner in 2015, and last year, heard about Adopt-an-Alp from her cheese importer World’s Best Cheese. Priding herself on The Cheese Lady’s unusual selection of cheeses, she thought the program could help her diversify her offerings even more.

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“It seemed like a good way to get our hands on some obscure, off-the-beaten path cheese,” she told MUNCHIES.

Last year, Lewis’s store carried Alpine cheeses from two Swiss cheesemakers, and quickly found herself hooked on both their taste and their provenance.

“What started as curiosity became an obsession,” she said.

In her store, Lewis promoted the imported cheeses to her customers through a variety of activities: a holiday open house in which she and her employees dresses in traditional Alpine costumes and created a “Picnic in the Alps” tablescape replete with pots of fondue, as well as Swiss coloring books for the store’s younger customers. At The Cheese Lady, Lewis is generous with the samples of her Swiss cheeses, and she said that tasting them is the most effective form of promotion.

“We put it in their hands, and they put in their mouth, and the cheeses sell,” she said.

Lewis’s newfound passion for Swiss cheeses even earned her a spot on an annual trip to Switzerland that the Adopt-an-Alp program awards to the stores that most creatively promote the program’s cheeses. This past June, she joined Hostettler and other contest winners on a visit to five different Alpine cheesemakers, and said she was blown away by what she observed.

“There’s just something so pure about the air in the country itself—you can taste it in the cheese,” she said.

This year, Lewis will offer cheese from a third Swiss farm called Ruosalp, operated by the farmers Max and Monica Herger and their three young children. Each summer, Nina Baumann, the Hergers’ 22-year-old niece and an animal homeopathist, joins her aunt and uncle in the Alpine heights where they make their fresh and aged cow and goats’ milk cheeses. For her, the opportunity to disseminate the Swiss cheesemaking culture is what’s most special about the Adopt-an-Alp program.

“It’s really exciting,” she told MUNCHIES. “We have a lot of contact with Caroline, and she has contact with the people who buy our cheese. We can tell her stories about the Alp life, and she gives that information to her accounts. We send her pictures of the farm, and she shares them on Facebook or Instagram. It’s fun for us to go on there and read the posts of the English-speaking people.”

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Baumann has been learning cheesemaking at Ruosalp since she was a child, and noted that while transhumance is on the decline, it’s still a hugely important part of Swiss life.

“It’s tradition to go on the Alp and be in nature; it’s a passion,” she said. “This tradition has lasted from generation to generation to generation.”

Ensuring that this endangered tradition will survive is of huge importance not just to the farmers who participate in Adopt-an-Alp, but also to the sellers who carry their cheeses. That’s true for Beth Falk, owner of Mill City Cheesemongers in Lowell, Massachusetts. A former environmental lawyer, Falk said that when stocking her store, she always considers the circumstances under which the cheeses were made, selecting those that reflect her personal values.

“Sustainable agriculture, and farming with an eye to how agriculture is important to a local economy, is always at the back of my mind,” she told MUNCHIES.

This is the first year that Falk has participated in Adopt-an-Alp, carrying both the farm’s cow and goats’ milk cheeses. Mill City Cheesemongers’ mission, Falk explained, has always been to stock products sourced from local, small-scale cheesemakers. But when she heard about Adopt-an-Alp, she could tell that the Swiss farmers’ methods fit neatly into the paradigm she promotes at her store.

“These are people who do things the right way,” she said. “This is not an easy or lucrative way of life, and we’re glad for the opportunity to share it with our customers. Through this cheese, they’re learning about cultural traditions, not just about food.”

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Unlike mass-produced cheeses such as that holey “Swiss,” traditionally made products feature a much more robust flavor profile that can take some getting used to. But Lewis, of The Cheese Lady, said that her customers quickly learned to love the Swiss cheeses she has introduced—as well as the idea of providing real, financial support to a centuries-old tradition.

“These can be pungent cheeses, and initially not all of my customers were fans,” she said. “But now, everybody loves them. And they love being a part of supporting that culture of cheesemaking that’s gone on for hundreds of years in Switzerland, and that we want to help continue on for hundreds and hundreds years more.”

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