But we've never fleshed out what exactly they are, or why they're called mountain cheeses in the first place. If you're interested in cheese, it's an important style to know about.
They're the biggest wheels around, typically weighing in between 80 and 130 pounds. This may be the most important thing to know about this style of cheese: with such tremendous size comes equally incredible aging potential. These are the cheeses that long ago came about in order to provide mountain communities with sustenance during long winter months. The cheeses were typically made in the summer, from the excellent summer milk from cows grazing high in the mountains on rich alpine pastures, and the wheels lasted until the next season. In order to obtain enough milk to make such large wheels, farmers would combine milk from their herds. These are the origins of cooperative farming in cheese history.
To make cheese last, it's necessary to extract as much moisture, or whey, from the curd. All mountain cheeses are cooked and pressed cheeses, meaning that the curd is literally cooked-- which makes it contract and exude moisture-- and then pressed beneath some kind of weight-- which forces even more whey from the wheel. The resulting cheese will be harder, drier, and more dense, with not much to worry about in terms of perishability.
Cheeses of this style originated in the Alps, in areas of eastern France and Switzerland, and also in Northern Italy. Incidentally, and not so coincidentally, this is fondue country, and before refrigeration, when cheeses would become hard and dry, it seemed only reasonable to cook them down with some wine and aromatics, to make them melty and oozy and delicious again.
Some of the best American cheeses are also considered mountain cheeses because of the method in which they're produced, even if they top out somewhere in the low double-digits weight-wise. Pleasant Ridge Reserve (WI), Thistle Hill Tarentais (VT), Cobb Hill Ascutney Moutain (VT), and Surchoix Gruyere (WI) are some of the names you may recognize. They're all aged for many months (9+) and they're all cooked and pressed.
Flavor-wise, mountain cheeses have sweet, almost caramel-like notes, and smell of cooked milk, brown sugar, and toasted nuts. Cooking the curd not only exudes more whey from the vat, but also caramelizes the milk sugars. So it's not your imagination that these cheeses are actually sweet. The best of mountain cheeses will maintain an addictive balance between salty and sweet. And who doesn't love that?
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.