Everything You Need to Know About Winter Cheeses

Vacherin Mont d'Or, a cheese made with winter milk.  Photo © Murray's Cheese Shop.
By Sammy Goldfien Posted January 22, 2016

Because winter is when we need cheese the most.

Like many foods, cheeses can be fundamentally different from season to season. Some are at their peaks in the chillier months, and these "winter cheeses" are generally divided into two categories: cheeses made with milk produced by animals in the spring and summer (approximately May through October) and cheeses made with milk produced during the fall and winter (approximately November through March). The exact seasonal distinctions may vary from region to region; it really just depends on when it gets too cold for the animals to be outside grazing. In the warmer months, dairy animals eat fresh grass, wild flowers, herbs and anything else that might be popping up. But when the cold arrives, they often remain inside and feed mostly on dried hay or silage (grasses that are harvested at their peak state and preserved for the winter by fermentation). “Because of this change in diet,” says Adam Goddu, manager at Murray's Cheese Shop at Grand Central Market in Manhattan, “the quantity of milk produced decreases and the flavors just aren’t as complex.” And, since the cheesemaking process generally involves removing water from milk (both in the form of whey and as evaporation during the aging process), any flavors present in the milk will be concentrated in its resulting cheese. With spring and summer milk, Goddu adds, “You can taste the wild onions and herbs the animals may have come across in the mountains. No such luck with hay.”

Cheeses made with spring and summer milk:

Some cheeses do not require aging (think fresh cheeses like mozzarella, feta and chèvre), so they are at their peak in the spring and summer, when milk has the best flavors. Aged cheeses, however, can take a few months to reach their optimal flavors and textures, which means batches made with spring or summer milk may not be ready to eat until much later in the year (or even the next). Because of the climate and the tradition of transhumance, this is especially true of mountainous areas. Alpine cheeses like Gruyère and Comté are notable examples that are traditionally made with milk from cows grazing on mountain pastures in the warmer months. Milk production is high at this time, and wheels of these cheeses are large (up to 80 pounds). Because of the size and the preferred style, these cheeses generally age a minimum of four months and an average of eight months. This means that cheese made with milk from May through October would be ready to eat between December and May.

Cheeses made with spring and summer cheese that are at their peak in the winter include:

Cheeses made with fall and winter milk:

While cold weather milk may not have notes of wildflowers and spring onions, it does have a higher fat content and produces exceptionally rich cheeses. One of the most sought-after cheeses in the world, Vacherin Mont d’Or, is traditionally made with the winter milk from the same cows that produce Gruyère in the summer. Because of the general decrease in milk production in the colder months, winter milk cheeses tend to be small (only a few ounces) and aged for a much shorter period of time; Vacherin Mont d’Or is only aged for five to seven weeks. This means these rich cheeses (often wrapped in spruce bark to impart a woody flavor) are also ready while it's still cold.

Here are a few winter milk cheeses to look out for:

Of course, neither of these lists is exhaustive, and you can figure out whether a particular cheese was made with winter or summer milk by subtracting the amount of aging time from the current date. Or, if you go to a cheese store with knowledgeable staff, they may be able to point you in the direction of their current seasonal favorites. Whichever cheese you decide on, eating with the seasons will insure you get the best of what Mother Nature has to offer.

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