Summer isn’t the season I typically think about Swiss cheeses – to me, they belong in a mid-winter fondue or on a snack plate when you’re cuddling in front of a fire. But there is a Swiss for all seasons, and I found the one perfect for warm-weather days: Challerhocker.

Challer what? I don’t blame you for asking – I had never heard of this cheese until it appeared at the Cheese Shop at France 44 a couple of months ago. (The name means “sitting in the cellar,” according to Cowgirl Creamery.) It’s produced by Walter Rass, the maker of Appenzeller, which you may recognize from the Wine Spectator list. Like Appenzeller, Challerhocker is a washed-rind cow’s-milk cheese, but it’s smaller and aged longer (at least 10 months). In her post 19 months old, Colleen noted Appenzeller’s smooth texture, fruity flavor and spicy finish. While Challerhocker is likewise very silky, its flavor reminds me more of clean, fresh straw, with a slightly caramel-like and nutty finish. It doesn’t demand hearty accompaniments like cured meats or cornichons, though it would certainly pair well with those foods. Challerhocker would be just as pleasing with a chilled glass of white wine or, as Janet Fletcher suggests, sherry or Madeira, and a few crackers on the side.

As an interesting aside: Challerhocker also keeps in your refrigerator (well-wrapped in cheese paper, of course) exceedingly well. I bought a hunk back in June before I went dairy-free, and it was still delicious today when I nibbled it again.

Do you know how you can make a good cheese taste even better? Let it sit out on the counter overnight. That’s what ol’ preggo brain here did last night, and the outcome wasn’t bad like I had feared. Actually, it makes sense – if all cheese are supposed to left at room temperature an hour before serving to heighten their flavors, 10 hours at room temperature must make a cheese 10 times as good, right?

Anyway, the cheese we’re talking about today is Gruyère, the Swiss cow’s-milk cheese that, to me, is Swiss cheese. Though you won’t usually find holes in Gruyère like the commodity “Swiss cheese” features, this is the quintessential Swiss cheese – sweet, nutty and rustic. And while cave-aged versions, such as the 15-month one I bought, typically have a stronger flavor, I found my piece to be pleasingly light and creamy on the tongue. If I had a loaf of crusty bread around, I could have had the entire wedge of Gruyère and bread for breakfast and be totally satisfied. Alas, I’m eating oatmeal. Yawn.

Gruyère melts well, so you’ll find it in a range of dishes, like gratins, quiches and soups. But to me, Gruyère means one thing – fondue. I’m all for trying new cheese combinations when making fondue, but the classic version features Gruyère as a main ingredient, and you can’t argue with that kind of star power. No matter how you prepare it, though, enjoy Gruyère with a light wine wine such as Riesling or a sparkling apple cider.

Y’all know that I started writing for the Heavy Table, right? It’s the new online food magazine covering the upper Midwest. If you haven’t already, check it today – you’ll find my story about Ken Liss of the Premier Cheese Market in Minneapolis. Ken, photographer Becca Dilley and I spent a couple of hours last week trying out interesting cheese/beverage/condiment pairings, and the results may surprise you!

Since early March is definitely still winter here in Minnesota, an Alpine cheese is still in season. And when you’re sick of snow and slush, a cozy cheese like Vacherin Fribourgeois is just the thing to remind you that there are benefits to the cold. You probably wouldn’t have a bowl of French onion soup in July, which means you’d be unlikely to melt a thick slice of Vacherin Fribourgeois on top of such a bowl in that month, either.

This semi-firm, raw cow’s-milk cheese, another winner from Rolf Beeler, is a superb melter, as many Swiss cheeses are. (Go to town, fondue lovers!) Steven Jenkins compares it to Fontina, and I can definitely see some similarities. Though it has a washed rind, it doesn’t really have a big stink factor. Rather, the buttery, meaty flavor pleasantly coats the mouth and makes you want just one more taste. Pair it with some crusty bread (my favorite is the rustic loaf from Rustica Bakery) and snack away. A nice hunk with bread and a green salad would make a very satisfying lunch or light dinner.

Jenkins recommends enjoying Vacherin Fribourgeois with a big red wine from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley or the Piedmont. I tasted mine the other night with my unfinished can of diet ginger ale, and wouldn’t you know, that match wasn’t bad, either!

Maybe it has something to do with temperatures that can’t seem to climb above freezing around here, but I’m still craving hearty mountain cheeses. Appenzeller, another Swiss classic from Rolf Beeler, is a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese brined in a centuries-old secret blend of herbs, wine and liquor.  Remarkably smooth, ideally suited for melting (think fondue), the Appenzeller has a sweet, fruity flavor and supple bite, with a spicy aftertaste. The buttery cheese has a few characteristic large holes and a hard reddish-orange rind. 

Appenzeller is ideal for cooking, or serve on a cheeseboard with sausages and bread. I layered thinly sliced Appenzeller with stone ground mustard and Pinot Grigio salami on a wheat baguette, served with cornichons on the side. Perfect for a slightly gourmet, yet still hearty, Super Bowl appetizer. Enjoy with beer of course (a German bock would be nice), or pinot gris. 

Check out this travelogue from Appenzell for a look at the cows responsible for this wonderful cheese.

Our second Alpine cheese this week brings us back to Switzerland, specifically to the town of Bellelay in the canton of Bern. Tête de Moine, which translates to “monk’s head” from the original French, was – surprise – originally made by monks, though now dairy cooperatives have taken over the cheesemaking. Why the unusual name? Tête de Moine is traditionally not cut into slices, but rather shaved across the top and sides with a knife held parallel to the cheese. The cheese’s appearance mimics the shaved head of the monks who developed it. The Swiss use a special device called a girolle to cut Tête de Moine – it skewers the cheese like a kabob and a vertical blade is swung around the top of the cheese to create pretty little ruffles. I thought it would be a bit much to buy a girolle just for the one cheese, but hey, if you’ve got the money and inclination, you’re welcome to it (lend it to me sometime). Instead, I used a simple paring knive to shave small pieces of Tête de Moine from the wheel and assembled the “petals” into a rose on my plate.

But enough about its appearance – how does Tête de Moine taste? Delicious! Steven Jenkins describes it as “beefy” in his “Cheese Primer,” and I have to agree that it’s a fitting description. A raw cow’s-milk cheese, it has a saltiness that reminds me of a well-seasoned steak, and, as my husband pointed out, a slight smoky flavor, too. (My husband also called the Tête de Moine “sexy,” which may sound odd until you learn about his unbridled love for beef.) The cheese could definitely stand up for itself on a plate of smoked or cured meats, but it would also pair nicely with fruit (not the strawberry shown – that was just to make the rosette pretty – but apples or pears) or a hearty cracker.

The big flavors of Tête de Moine would match well with a full-bodied wine – Jenkins recommends a Burgundy or Rhône. I had neither on hand but had already opened a bottle of a Chilean 60/40 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot earlier that night, so I gave that a whirl. The pairing wasn’t bad by any means (not like my Epoisses mismatch a few weeks ago), but I think a stronger wine would have really made the Tête de Moine shine.

Tête de Moine also lends itself well to cooking – check out the cheese’s official Web site for recipes.

Something about grey, wintery weather makes me crave a good melting cheese, and my first thought when biting into a slice of Hoch Ybrig was, “fondue!” A Swiss mountain cheese, this semi-firm cheese has a smooth texture with just a few little crystals, and a bold tang from being soaked in white wine. It is produced by acclaimed fromager Rolf Beeler in Zurich, known in cheese circles as “The Pope of Swiss Cheese,” and whose cheeses appear several times on the Wine Spectator list. Try it on a baguette with a chardonnay mustard and sliced salami for a hearty winter lunch. Its nutty flavor would pair well with a Riesling or pale beer, though I enjoyed it with some hot apple cider.

This cheese is produced in small batches only in the summer months (I guess those Alpine cattle hibernate in the winter?) so catch it while you can! I found it at Cheesetique, and online at Artisanal. There is apparently a Swiss ski resort by the same name; so whip up some Hoch Ybrig fondue and imagine you’re sitting by the fireplace after a day on the slopes.

However you ring in the New Year, we wish you nothing but the finest in cheese and life in 2009!