In the U.S., Swiss cheese has become a generic term to
describe the mild pasteurized cow's milk variety found in any deli or supermarket. But real Swiss cheese-cheese from Switzerland, that is-bears little relation to the ham-sandwich staple. And it doesn't necessarily have holes. Like their European neighbors, the French and Italians, the Swiss have been making cheese for centuries, and each region of the country boasts its own intriguing varieties, with flavors ranging from nutty and floral to rich and earthy.
The two best-known cheeses from Switzerland are Emmenthal and Gruyère. Both are made from raw (unpasteurized) cow's milk, and both originate in the cantons (or regions) of Switzerland's mountainous western half. Emmenthal is the classic and most prestigious type, arriving in this country in enormous wheels weighing as much as 200 pounds. The taste is mild and elegant, with a slight nuttiness.
Gruyère has a richer, earthier aroma and a more piquant flavor. It has a higher fat content, and is typically cave-aged as long as two years, which allows its subtle flavors of fruit and cream to develop.
Most people never explore beyond these two mainstays, but thanks to gourmet groceries like Whole Foods, specialty cheese shops such as Artisanal in New York, and online sources such as idealcheese.com and igourmet.com, lesser-known Swiss cheeses with exotic and distinctive flavors are readily available. Combine one or two to enliven a traditional fondue or fill a cheese plate. Start with Appenzeller, a cow's-milk cheese from eastern Switzerland. Appenzeller dresses up its Emmenthal-like flavor with spicy, herbal notes. These come from the "washing" process, where the rind of the cheese is bathed in an herbal brine for months before it's ready to eat. And Vignerons, known in Switzerland as the "winemaker's cheese," is soft and satiny in texture, with a slightly stronger flavor than Gruyère. Other options are Hoch Ybrig-a smooth, soft cheese with caramel-like notes-and Vacherin Fribourgeois, which has a fresh, milky aroma and a delicate, fruity taste. For those who like strong flavors, there's Tête de Moine, sharp, rich and redolent of freshly turned earth. After sampling these exotic varieties of Swiss, you'll never go generic again. And après-ski just might start a little earlier.
Raclette is another Swiss cheese you should know. Mild and milky, it originates from the picturesque southern canton of Valais, home to the Matterhorn. Made in large wheels (usually around 13 pounds) raclette is traditionally eaten by heating the flat side of a wheel over the fire. Then, when the cheese turns molten, it is scraped (racler in French) onto a plate and served with pickled onions and boiled potatoes. The flavor is subtle and slightly sweet-and it pairs perfectly with a glass of dry, crisp Chasselas, Switzerland's best-loved white wine.