We’re bringing you Tompey L’Etivaz AOP cheese as part of the Adopt and Alp effort. Each year since 2015, Zingerman’s Delicatessen has helped support the family farmers and cheesemakers in the Alps of Switzerland through our Adopt An Alp effort. We import different Alpage cheeses–each with a special story about the lifestyle, traditions, people and animals who seasonally move around the Alps to make these incredible cheeses. We invite you to learn, buy, and enjoy these cheeses with us!
Transhumance is a tradition of people and animals moving in accordance with the seasons. It originated over 8,000 years ago and is how these Alpage cheeses are made. Dairy farmers in Switzerland move their family and cows from the valley to the higher meadows during the summer season to escape the heat and produce these cheeses.
The cheese begin to arrive at the Deli in the fall and we usually have enough to get us through the holidays. We enjoy these cheeses on a cheeseboard, in a fondue, or just for snacking. For more information about the Adopt and Alp effort to connect American cheesemongers and consumers with Alpage cheeses, visit their website or follow them on Instagram or Facebook.
Tompey L’Etivaz AOP
Ari writes about this cheese in the Nov/Dec 2020 Zingerman’s Newsletter. The following is an excerpt from that newsletter entitled L’Etivaz cheese from the Zjörien family.
I first stumbled on L’Etivaz in the summer of 1994 on a cheese hunting trip to the Alps with my friends Randolph Hodgson from Neals Yard Dairy and Daphne Zepos (see the Epilogue of Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading: Part 3 for more on Daphne’s life and death). At the time, none of us had ever heard of it. We found it by accident—a sighting of wooden cheese-aging shelves drying in the sun by the side of the road clued us in that we were near a small dairy. We stopped. The story and the details were as great as the cheese. An hour down the road, we were still talking about how fine the finish of the cheese was.
It took a year or two to get it to Ann Arbor, and it’s made regular appearances at the Deli ever since. L’Etivaz is everything I love about great food: a superb sandwich of phenomenal flavor and incredible history. A product that owes its existence to the near-fanatical passion of the people who make it; dairy rebels with a cause, committed to maintaining their heritage. But, above and beyond all else, what makes L’Etivaz more than just a good story is how incredibly good it tastes.
In 1932, while most of the cheese world was choosing industrialization, 76 families who farmed the land around the town of L’Etivaz decided to go in the other direction. In doing so, they turned away from significant government subsidies afforded to officially-approved cheesemakers in Switzerland. In the process, they made a clear choice for integrity over income.
The L’Etivaz makers set up an exceptionally strict code of production, oriented toward preserving tradition and authenticity:
- The cheese must be crafted completely by hand—no mechanical means of any sort are allowed.
- The cheesemaking may take place only when the herds are up in the Alpage—the mountain pastures surrounding the village—between 3,500 and 6,500 feet above sea level. This altitude adjustment ensures that the cows are out eating from an amazing array of wild herbs, tiny mountain flowers, and assorted green grasses. Wild spinach, for example, grows all over the Alpage and both Swiss cows and Swiss people eat it often.
- The cheese can be made only in a demarcated region around the town of L’Etivaz.
- Each family can make cheese only from the milk of its own herd—no buying of milk is allowed.
- L’Etivaz (in this case, like all Swiss Gruyère) must be “cooked” in copper kettles.
- No chemicals can be used at any point in the process, from field to finished cheese. Essentially, L’Etivaz is an organic cheese.
- Perhaps most noteworthy to our modern American sense and sensibility, the code requires that the heating of the milk may only be done over open wood fires!
- L’Etivaz may be made from May 10 through October 10. But in actual practice, the season is often shorter, since many of the mountain pastures are still too cold for the cows to be grazing outdoors in the first and last months.
This cheese comes to us from the dairy of the Zjörien family on the Alp named Tompey, overlooking Lake Geneva. From roughly early June to the final days of September the Zjöriens shift their living quarters to a chalet atop the mountain. Their 70 or so cows (a mix of Red Holstein, Holstein, Simmental, and Swiss Brown) go with them, along with a trio of donkeys, their two dogs (“Rocky” and “Bob”), and a few chickens and pigs. During that time, they produce about 250 wheels—roughly two wheels a day.
The cheese we have on hand has about 16 months of maturing on it right now. It’s so good, I could happily eat some every day for the rest of the calendar year! One sliver will tell you that a well-aged wheel of L’Etivaz is something special: exceptionally buttery, with just the slightest hint of spice; surprisingly sweet, and not at all salty or bitter; somewhat less fruity than a comparably-aged Gruyère. It fills your mouth with flavor, and finishes with a tiny wisp of wood smoke, the mark of the open wood fires over which it is made. Supplies are super limited! Don’t miss out!
photo credit Adopt an Alp