The gems from Switzerland just keep on coming. This latest, Vully Rouge, debuted in the U.S. last fall, although it has a 20-year history in Switzerland. Unlike Gruyère, Emmental, Appenzeller and other well-known Swiss cheeses, Vully Rouge is the creation of a single cheesemaker and it has thrived outside the PDO (protected designation of origin) system.
At a dinner party where a lot of wines are poured (I live in Napa Valley--is there another kind of dinner party?), I don’t have to ponder which wine I liked best. It was in the glass I emptied first. The cheese equivalent is the one I can’t stop nibbling long after I’m no longer hungry. Vully Rouge has that kind of allure for me. It is savory, persistent, complex, complete.
In 1993, Ewald Schäfer, a recent Swiss dairy-school graduate, purchased the village creamery in Cressier (population: 896) in the canton of Fribourg. The property seemed ideal: it included a residence for his growing family and a small shop where his wife might sell what he made.
The creamery specialized in Emmentaler, which irked Schäfer, who thought Emmentaler should come from Emmental. So this young cheesemaker perfected a recipe of his own, christened the new cheese Mont Vully after a nearby hill, and in four years, was selling enough of it to cease Emmentaler production entirely. Fromagerie Schäfer now makes about 500,000 pounds of Mont Vully each year. Obviously, I’m not the only one who can’t stop eating it.
Made with thermised cow’s milk (a heat treatment that stops short of pasteurization), a wheel of Vully Rouge—as it’s known here—weighs about 15 pounds. During its four months in the Schäfer aging room, the cheese is washed repeatedly with brine and a local Pinot Noir, which imparts no aroma I can discern. The rind’s butterscotch hue comes from annatto, a plant-based colorant.
My go-to reference book on Switzerland's cheeses (Swiss Cheese by Dominik Flammer and Fabian Scheffold) describes Schäfer’s products as “among the most aromatic on the market.” I’m on board with that. The semi-firm interior, a uniform gold with numerous small openings, smells exactly like French onion soup: a merging of broth, caramelized onions, toasted bread and melted cheese with an overlay of roasted peanuts. The flavor is concentrated, intense and long lasting, more sweet than sharp. The book’s authors marvel at how much character Schäfer gets from thermised milk.
Peterson Company, a Washington State importer/distributor, brings in Vully Rouge as part of a new program showcasing alpine cheeses irrespective of country of origin. “We’re looking at the Alps as a bio-region with a history that precedes modern borders,” says sales rep Tyson Danilson. “We’re looking outside of the PDOs and sourcing direct from the farmstead or creamery.”
Like European wine producers who want more creative freedom than appellation rules allow, cheesemakers like Schäfer sacrifice the security of the PDO, with its marketing dollars and name recognition, for the pleasure of making a cheese uniquely theirs. U.S. distribution is limited but expected to grow soon. Currently, you can find Vully Rouge at Cheese Plus in San Francisco; Pasta Shop in Oakland; Cheese Bar in Portland; DeLaurenti in Seattle, Perfectly Paired in Bellingham, Wash., and Le District in New York City.
The creamery’s website shows Vully Rouge with red wine—the local Pinot Noir, no doubt—but I would prefer a rich white: an Alsatian Pinot Gris, a Chardonnay with some age on it or an off-dry sherry.