A brief history of Austrian cheese

We partnered with Europe Home of Cheese: Austrian Cheese to share all the beauty and cheese Austria has to offer. The mountainous landscape of Austria is home to 100% GMO-free dairy production, which makes the curd truly iconic and undeniably delicious.

Austria is known for many things: Mozart, meticulously made cakes, hills so beautiful that Julie Andrews exploded. However, one of the country’s true hidden gems is its cheese culture. Despite the popularity of neighboring Alpine dairy regions, Austrian cheese was not available in other European countries until the 1990s and in the United States only recently. For centuries, the only way to experience Austria’s unique and flavorful cheeses was to go to Austria. Fortunately for all of us, things are starting to change.

Country of cows

In Austria, cheese is a way of life. Three quarters of the country is rugged mountainous terrain, difficult for growing crops, but perfect for alpine farming. In this breathtaking landscape, small herds of native alpine cows nibble on clover, dandelion, meadowsweet, marigold, thistle and the countless other wild herbs and herbs that cover the idyllic alpine pasture. And as if this were not enough, they also quench their thirst with the snow that melts from the clear mountain streams. The respect for these cows is so deep in the Austrian culture that every autumn they organize a party for them to welcome them home from the high mountain pastures: it is called Almabtrieb and the animals wear wreaths and bells for this.

“[It’s] a colorful and beautiful tribute, “says Sarah Mentin, who has participated in many Almabtriebs and works for Alma, an Austrian dairy cooperative. Mentin says that each farmer has about 20 cows and considers them as a family. The milk from these cows it is collected from local dairy cooperatives that transform it into cheese, otherwise it is transformed into young forms by the farmers themselves. They do it in the mountain chalets called Berghütte, where the curd is cooked in copper kettles on fires made with fresh chopped wood to induce the flavors of brown butter and toasted nuts.The wheels are then aged on fir shelves in centuries-old aging cellars, in a hyper-local production chain that is today as sustainable as it has been for centuries.

A history of past curds

In fact, Austrian cheese is older than Austria itself. From which their mountain cheeses come from mountain cheese, developed under the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the 9th century. Even before the Romans arrived in the area, itinerant wanderers produced sour milk cheeses such as Tyrolean gray cheese (or Tiroler Graukäse), Glundner Käse, Montafoner Sura Käse, Ennstaler Steirerkäse, Murtaler Steirerkäse and many others since the Stone Age .

This story has led to a variety of styles – 450 varieties, give or take – and names can be confusing. It helps to know that Austrians speak German and in German “käse” translates to “cheese”, “berg” in “mountain” and “alp” or “alm” in “mountain pasture”. Cheeses also generally take on the title of a region: the famous Vorarlberg Bergkäse AOP and Alpkäse wheels, for example, come from the Vorarlberg mountains. The unique terroir of each region gives its cheeses their own local flavor. Just like wine, factors such as climate, water, plant life and even geological composition in Austria produce entirely expressive flavors of the earth.

And it’s not just hard mountain cheeses: Austria also produces soft forms that vary from lightly flowery rinds to pungent washed ones and date back to when monasteries dotted the hillsides. There are also blues and medium hard wheels which are known for their smooth paste and huge Emmentaler-like eyelets. Regardless of the style, they are all made with the utmost respect for the land (Austria’s 6.9 million acres of farmland are all GMO-free), using recipes handed down through generations of family-run businesses.

The resulting cheese culture is robust. Every Austrian city has cheese shops, from Jumi Käse in Vienna to Kaslochl in Salzburg, and most grocery stores have cheese stalls. In Vorarlberg there is also a KäseStrasse (Cheese Road), known for the production of 60 varieties of cheese in 17 valley dairies and 90 alpine farms.

Austrian cheese in the kitchen

So what do Austrians do with all this cheese? Well, like any proud Alpine inhabitant, they make fondue. But they also make dishes like Käsespätzle (think: Austrian micro mac and cheese), Käseknödel (cheese dumplings), and Palatschinken (cheese pancakes), which Mentin says are popular with families across the country. Austrians even make their own version of cheese dishes, called Kalte Platten or Bretteljausen, accented with black bread and wursts (sausages) of wild game meat.

These cheeses are finally making their entry into kitchens also abroad. They are first-rate melters, perfect for grilled cheeses, pasta with cheese, sauces, egg dishes and both sweet and savory tarts. They are quick friends with sparkling Austrian wines like Grüner Veltliner or Bavarian beers like Weizenbier, Helles and Vienna lager and bock. And they are great for a snack: all you need is an apple and a piece of crusty bread to enjoy them. Regardless of how you choose to welcome this rare delicacy into your kitchen, you’re guaranteed a taste of the beautiful land of Austria and Austria’s rich history in every bite.

What’s your favorite type of cheese from Austria? Tell us in the comments below!

Our friends in Europe Home of Cheese: Austrian Cheese is spreading the word about the curd produced in this beautiful alpine setting. Cheese making in Austria is naturally sustainable thanks to the region’s natural resources, ensuring that centuries-old artisanal practices can continue and happy cow herds can continue to be, well, happy.

The content of this promotional campaign represents the author’s point of view only and is his sole responsibility. The European Commission and the European Research Executive Agency (REA) accept no responsibility for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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