Spring has an unfair advantage over winter in the cheese world. Conjuring images of just-born lambs and kids clumsily prancing about emerald fields, spring scores points on cuteness alone. Add that to the freshly sprouting grasses and herbs flavoring its milk, and some would say the season was born with a silver marketing spoon in its mouth.
Winter cheese, on the other hand, has to work harder to beguile. Its milk doesn't have sexy herbal notes, and creamery visitors don't think the full-grown animals look as cute when rushing to feed as the spring babies do. But it has things that other seasons do not — Vacherin Mont d'Or, Mont d'Or, Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, Försterkäse, Winnimere and now, Rush Creek. Winter cheese is the stuff that caseophiles dream about all year long.
Available three to five months of the year, these cow's milk cheeses start emerging in late November or December. When they don't sell out (like the Mont d'Or and Haut-Doubs did this season), they can be spotted in specialty shops until February to April. About an inch high and weighing roughly a pound, the wheels are tender to the touch and have centers soft enough for drizzling or scooping.
Mont d'Or, Haut-Doubs and Försterkäse are rooted in the European tradition of making cheeses to suit the season, and Jasper Hill's Winnimere and Uplands' Rush Creek are American odes to the custom.
In Europe, milk from different seasons has long had different cheese-making purposes. Spring and summer milk in the French Comté and neighboring regions in Switzerland, for example, traditionally goes to cheeses like Comté and Gruyère. The large wheels provide nourishment and tastes of lush pastures to families in winter.
But European families cannot live on one style of cheese alone for an entire season.
First made in the 19th century on the Swiss side of the Mont d'Or mountain and soon after in France, the tiny Vacherin Mont d'Or was bound for glory. Made with rich, high-butterfat winter milk, it has a woodsy flavor that comes from the spruce bark in which it is wrapped and intensifies with age. The wheel starts off as a mild-tasting thick paste when young and turns into a stronger-flavored satiny cream when older. French versions are called simply Mont d'Or and Vacherin du Haut-Doubs.
Försterkäse, a newer cheese made nearby in Switzerland's Krummenswil region, is meant to honor the area and its traditions. Its name translates to "one who tends the forest."
Like Vacherin, Försterkäse is a washed-rind cheese. Its surface is rubbed with a salt brine and local white wine to encourage growth of the seductive and earthy Brevibacterium linens bacteria and wrapped with a local pine to inspire woodsy notes. Made from raw milk and aged 60 days, Försterkäse is a little bolder and more soulful than its pasteurized-milk cousins. Think Al Green versus Frank Sinatra.
Winnimere, a raw-milk cheese made from the winter milk of Jasper Hill Farm's Ayrshire cows in Greensboro, Vt., is modeled after Försterkäse. Wrapped with bark from Jasper Hill's trees, Winnimere is brined, then washed with a local lambic beer that has been spiked with the dairy's native yeast. The cheese has a bright orange rind like Försterkäse, a silky soft center and a pungent, earthy bacon flavor.
Rush Creek Reserve, the newest cheese from Dodgeville, Wis., dairy Uplands Cheese, is a subtle interpretation of Mont d'Or that is wrapped with spruce bark imported from the Jura region of France. Made from the raw milk of the dairy's best cows, Rush Creek is aged next to Uplands' American Cheese Society winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve, inspiring cheese-maker Andy Hatch to call it a "softer, baby Pleasant Ridge." Though still earthy, Rush Creek is a fruity, milky cheese that is softer on the palate than the other winter wheels.
Because these winter cheeses are limited and hard to find, their glory should be shared with revelers. Take the wheels from the fridge an hour before serving. Then tap at the cheese's surface with a spoon to reveal a French vanilla-hued interior and a texture that begs to be scooped. Serve with a wine from the Jura region, a Chardonnay or a Belgian tripel beer, and tell your guests to bring plenty — a cheese party is a special occasion.
Where to buy winter cheeses
The cheeses mentioned in this story can be found at the following locations. Notice, though, that these are artisanal products made in limited quantities; Vacherin Mont d'Or and Haut-Doubs are already sold out for the year. Call ahead to ensure availability.
Försterkäse: Cheese Store of Silverlake (special order) (323) 644-7511, http://www.cheesestoresl.com; C'est Cheese in Santa Barbara (805) 965-0318, http://www.cestcheese.com; Joan's on Third (323) 655-2285, http://www.joansonthird.com; Cheese Cave in Claremont (909) 625-7560, http://www.claremontcheese.com; Andrew's Cheese (310) 393-3308, http://www.andrewscheese.com; Wally's Wine & Spirits (special order) (310) 474-1450, http://www.wallywine.com
Rush Creek Reserve: Cheese Store of Silverlake; Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, (310) 278-2855, http://www.cheesestorebh.com; C'est Cheese in Santa Barbara; Joan's on Third (special order); Cheese Cave in Claremont (special order); Wally's Wine & Spirits
Winnimere: Cheese Store of Silverlake; Cheese Store of Beverly Hills; C'est Cheese in Santa Barbara; Joan's on Third (special order); Cheese Cave in Claremont; Andrew's Cheese; Wally's Wine and Spirits