09 May 2011

Unholy Swiss Cheese: Appenzeller

From outside the town of Appenzell in a region lovingly called Appenzellerland comes a stinky, wonderful cheese called Appenzeller. This was the one we've been waiting for - the cheese that kept our consumption in Gruyères nominally restrained. Had to save room for the really good stuff. Appenzellerland isn't teeming with cows the way Gruyère was, nor is it with tourists. We found the demonstration dairy in the quaint little town of Stein - marked by three wedges on its front lawn.
The cheese is less well known, produced by about 70 dairies in the region. When we last lived in Manhattan, Rolf Beeler Appenzeller was all the rage with turophiles. My hopes of seeing a Beeler farm were dashed when I discovered that he only ages wheels. Not saying that isn't very important, but the cheese itself is made by artisans. I'm sure his wheels come from a dairy much smaller than the one we visited.
Appenzeller is made like any other large wheel of cheese, but then washed with a secret brine to create the rind. People say that the use of wine gives the more delicate varieties their flavor, but no one really knows the recipe for sure. Since its not as big of an industry, affineurs are free to brine the wheel with almost anything they like during the aging process. I'm sure there are some key elements that they all include in their recipe, but - like they kept pointing out in the official Appenzellerland literature - that's all a secret.
About twenty people, almost all men, stood at a balcony looking down on the operation inside. It must be strange to go about your work and have people staring down at you. This stage of cheese making always seems so unappetizingly processed to me, conjuring imaged of plastic wrapped blocks at the Shop Rite. Then I think of the cheesemakers coming in to pick up their wheels and then bringing them back to their own caves on their own farms to prepare in their own special way, using a family recipe passed down for generations.
The cheese dates back at least 700 years and the Stein dairy attempted to illustrate this point by placing a golden wheel of Appenzeller on a stand inside a traditional farm room recreation. It was a little bizarre and I think their lawn art was better. What made this dairy more fun than the one in Gruyères, to me, was the smell. It's really pungent and just makes our hearts go pitter patter. In fact, at dinner just the night before, a group of four dined on Appenzeller fondue and we almost caved and ordered our own. "One fondue is enough," we reasoned - the ones in Gruyères all those days ago will have to suffice.
Instead, we bought a sliver, knowing full well that a wedge will be served with our breakfast tomorrow, just as it was this morning. We chose "Extra," as opposed to "Classic" or "Surchoix." We also tried a super aged one that crumbled like an old roomano and had an incredibly sharp, sour taste. Grated on top of a soup, it probably would be delicious, but its spicyness was pretty overwhelming on its own. Sadly, the heat ruined our little cheese portion and we were forced - simply forced - to order an Appenzeller fondue for dinner. It was much more flavorful than the Gruyère variety and we enjoyed it a lot more. Fondue was our first Swiss meal and our last. A proper bookend, we think.

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