Alpine Cheeses At Artisanal Altitude

We delve into the world of Alpine cheese production, where small-scale farmers create unique products that encapsulate the essence of the Italian Alps.

Production of Alpine Cheeses Valle d'Aosta
Alpeggio in Valle d'Aosta. Photo: Daniel Leone on Unsplash.

Cheeses from small-scale producers across the Alps are prized for their artisanal techniques and the unpolluted mountain pastures their livestock graze on. Their cheeses reflect the unique flavors that their flocks acquire from foraging on diverse pastures-including plant species in full bloom. These upland cheeses have different characteristics than their lowland industrial counterparts. They are truly agro-culinary products that bear the character of their territories.

For centuries farmers have been leading their herds upland to graze in the summer months from lower elevations. This freed up lower-land terrain that was more suited to summer cultivation. In the higher altitudes, which today for some producers are as high as 2,700 meters above sea level, the tradition of the alpeggio lives.

An alpeggio historically was a fairly simple structure often built of stone and wood where raw milk would be immediately transformed into cheese. Today, they are still simple but have more modern additions such as easily cleanable white tiles and electric. Some alpeggi are still quite rustic. The high storability of these preserved foods like butter or cheese combined with their high-caloric value were important sources of food in these historically poor and rugged regions during the cold hungry months.

These cheeses are produced with methods that involve more biological diversity than industrial production resulting in flavors that vary considerably from producer to producer. Smaller producers do not use the industrial sterilization methods that discourage unique microbial communities. A unique microbiota adds its own flavor. The breeds of cows, goats or sheep are often traditional breeds that may produce less, but produce higher fat content for higher quality cheeses and butter. Open air methods invite microbial diversity which can sound scary to some but is often a hedge against the accidental breeding of super-pathogens found in industrial production. The longer a cheese ages, the safer it becomes from certain dangerous pathogens. The aging process drives down microbial activity.

One such traditional cow breed originating from the Middle-Ages in the Swiss Alps is called the Mucca Bruna in Italy. In Switzerland it is called the Braunvieh or Brown Swiss in English. Many cattle in the Alps mountain-arc descend from this breed. Originally the breed was a triple use breed being used for butter, cheese and draft work. Currently, it is primarily used for high quality milk.

Today, the term formaggio di malga or malga cheese is used to describe alpine cheese made with these historic methods. With pre-Roman origin in alpine dialects, malga means the summer pastures where the animals spend their summers. It can also refer to the alpeggio tradition.  The flavors, nutritional profile including the fatty acid profile of cheese will change depending on the altitude in which the livestock graze. Italians invest in a fair amount of scientific research into fully understanding the uniqueness of traditional food production techniques.

In the alpine foothills and the proper Italian Alps, tougher terrain with shrubs also lends itself to goat husbandry and caprino or goat cheese. These alpine pastures at higher altitudes are too steep and cool for other crops like wheat or corn and lend themselves to dairy production.  Some cheeses produced in these regions are often characterized by their accompanying edible molds from the mold genus Penicillium. Unsurprisingly, cheeses produced in the Italian Piemonte region bordering France will bear these edible molds like French Brie and Camembert.

If we started from the Western Alps going east, we could begin in the alpine region of Val D’Aosta. One of this region’s most well known cow-milk cheeses is called Fontina. It bears a pungent smell which is also found in some French cheeses and can be off-putting to some. The flavor however, is somewhat like a tangy very young cheddar. The first recorded references to Fontina trace back to the Middle-Ages.

The first written reference is found in Summa Lacticinorum del Medico vercellese Pantaleone di Confienza in AD 1477. The Latin- Summa Lacticinorum, translates to “comprehensive sum of dairy products.” The first visual representation which depicts Fontina in the same form it is made today is found in a fresco at the Castle of Issogne. This fresco depicts an artisanal dairy housing the familiar Fontina forms. This fresco is believed to be several years younger than the first written reference.

There are several theories regarding the origin of the name Fontina. One theory posits there was an alpeggio named Fontin. There was also a small village named Fontinaz. There is also an old French term fondis which indicates this cheese’s ability to melt at moderate temperatures. The dialects of these border regions have strong French linguistic influence. Fondue, with a similar etymology, is the practice of melting cheese for communal eating just to the north in Switzerland.

To the south, but still within the alpine chain in the region of Piemonte, a cow milk cheese called Castelmagno dAlpeggio is aged at altitude. This cheese was first referenced in written documents over 800 years ago. Like many alpine cheeses it was used as a form of currency in antiquity.

This cheese has the Italian Agriculture Ministry’s Denomination Origine Protetta protected status—D.O.P. This cheese is aged in cool humid sandstone cantinas at 1,900 meters. La Meira Terre di Castelmagno farm has earned the Slow Food organization’s “Presìdio” specialty distinction for its Castelmagno cheese.

The summer production of Castelmagno dAlpeggio is yellow, containing the beta-carotenes the cows acquire from fresh forage. Castelmagno di Montagna or Mountain Castelmagno is the winter production version from cows fed dried hay in stalls and features a white curd.

To the East in Lombardia, in the province of Brescia, there is a cow-milk cheese called Bagòss with the famous “holes.” When this cheese is produced by the Bagòss consortium it lacks holes, but when made artisanally by shepherds themselves, it can have different hole sizes depending on the ambient temperatures of when it is produced. Americans call these cheeses with holes in them “Swiss cheese” for the holes one finds in Swiss Emmental—also an Alpine cheese. When these cheeses are produced during the cooler seasons the denser curds at lower temperatures do not release their microbial gas as readily. In warmer seasons the bubbles will be smaller or not present. When they are present, you get cheese with “holes.”

Valle Camonica and the adjacent valley Val Saviore, also in the province of Brescia are renowned for their cheeses. Caprino or goat cheese producers after years of decline of the valley’s local goat breed bionda dellAdamello have increased the head count to 2500 from around a 1000 recently. This fair haired goat called “blonde” is friendly, easy to approach and likes to be pet. One caprino produced by this breed is called Il Fatulì della Val Saviour. The milk obtained by hand milking is formed and then smoked. The unique flavor comes from the smoking of green branches and juniper. It is usually eaten young and not aged longer than six months. Traditionally it would accompany chestnut flour pasta.

Fatulí Alpine cheeses
Artisanal Fatulí produced from the traditional “bionda dell’Adamello” goat breed, in the Bassa Bresciana, Lombardy. Photo courtesy of the author.

Fresh goat cheese in Valle Camonica wrapped in chestnut or grape leaves is described by the Comunità Montana di Valle Camonica, a regional cultural promotion group,  as a “cult” object for cheese lovers. Fresh goat cheeses can also be covered with herbs or encouraged to grow the internal flavorful green mold like Gorgonzola or American “blue cheese.”

In the historically poor but now wealthy Germanic speaking region of Trentino Alto Adige to the east, another cheese of the peasant tradition persists. Graukase or in Italian formaggio grigio is named for the grey mold of its rind. Traditionally this cheese made in the Pusteresi subsection of the Alps was made from milk that had already been exploited for butter. This results in a cheese with a lower fat content and crumbly texture. This cheese has also earned the Slow Food Presìdio.

Today these high quality specialty cheeses have their local devoted followings but they also make it to market through direct sale lower down in the valleys and plains at local outdoor markets. They can also be found in the specialty section in retail stores outside of their respective regions. These cheeses can also now travel further and faster than they could centuries ago to far away tables through online purchases.