Every summer I lead a cheese tasting for the Society of Medical Friends of Wine, a group of Bay Area physicians with a shared interest in fine wine. We have never had a problem filling the seats until this year, when one of the doctors—a Swiss native—suggested a Swiss theme for the tasting. He got no resistance from me: I loved the idea. Some of the most impressive cheeses I’ve had in the last few years have been new arrivals from Switzerland.
But prejudices ebb slowly. Apparently, many Americans still think of Swiss cheese as that grainy slice in their deli sandwich. We had to pitch this event relentlessly to get a quorum.
Below is a picture of the cheese plate from that day. These awesome cheeses left no one in doubt about the skill and creativity of Switzerland’s modern cheesemakers. The cheese pictured above, Urchrüter, wasn’t in the lineup only because local availability was still iffy, but it belongs in any tasting showcasing Switzerland’s best.
Made in Bremgarten, just west of Zurich, from organic raw cow’s milk, Urchrüter is one of many new cheeses created since the collapse of the Swiss Cheese Union 15 years ago. This cartel severely limited the types of cheese that creameries could make and discouraged innovation. The motivation was to keep prices high, but the result was corrosive. When the Union dissolved after 75 years, Swiss cheesemakers were finally freed up to try new recipes or revive old ones.
Cheesemaker Sepp Brülisauer makes a range of specialty cheeses, including the eight-pound Urchrüter, whose name means, roughly, that’s it an herbed cheese from an old recipe. The thin rind is dusted with minced herbs, and maybe it’s my imagination in overdrive, but I do get some parsley, celery leaf and vegetal aromas—along with the roasted-nut and caramel scents typical of alpine wheels—in the paste. The interior is softer than Gruyère, more supple and smooth but not fudgy, with few eyes.
I like to shave this type of cheese into silky sheets with a plane, but I don’t think that’s the practice in Switzerland. Serve with a buttery white wine, like Chardonnay, or some fino sherry. Urchrüter would kick any fondue up a notch, but given the price—$27 to $30 a pound—I would rather showcase it on a cheese plate.
Look for Urchrüter at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco; Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley; Berkeley Bowl and Cheese Board in Berkeley; Cal Mart in Calistoga; Davis Food Co-op; Big John’s in Healdsburg; Nugget Markets (Sacramento area); Petaluma Market; Piazza’s Fine Foods (Palo Alto and San Mateo); and Sunshine Foods in St. Helena.
Any other Swiss cheese you love?