Talking Alpine Cheeses with Song Lee of France 44

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This story sponsored by France 44.

If you’ve ever had a mind-blowing cheese fondue, you’re probably familiar with Swiss Gruyère and other related Alpine-style cheeses — and if you haven’t, you’ve got some gastronomic catching up to do.

Cheesemonger Song Lee of France 44 is a big fan of these cheeses, which boast flavors that are both unmistakable and pleasingly subtle.

“Nuttiness to me is the first taste that comes to mind,” says Lee. “There’s definitely a grassy finish afterward. They should be nutty and buttery with grassiness at the end. If you want to make the most amazing fondue, you can’t go wrong. You could cut it with some young Emmentaler, and it would be amazing.”

One of her Alpine-style favorites, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, hails from a place a bit closer than Switzerland — this award-spangled cheese is made in Wisconsin.

“The first time I tasted it was one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments,” Lee says. “This cheese is so different from most domestic cheeses. It doesn’t hurt that I met the couple who make the cheese — they’re the salt of the earth, and so passionate, as a lot of cheesemakers are. It’s one of the few cheeses that’s exported to Europe. It’s kind of cool that we have this European cheese that’s going back to Europe.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Gruyère is of Swiss origin; Pleasant Ridge Reserve is from Wisconsin; a very similarly styled French cheese is Comté.

“Comté is an old, traditional cheese,” says Lee. “Each wheel is 60 or 70 pounds. It’s kind of a cheese monster — if you’re not used to seeing a whole wheel of cheese, it’s daunting.”

France 44 works with these hand-picked wheels from Essex St. Cheese Company on a regular basis. Because of the hand-crafted nature of the cheese, the flavor profile and color varies from wheel to wheel.

“When I first opened that wheel of Comté, I noticed that the color was lighter than the one we opened before — it was winter milk,” says Lee. “This is seasonal food, and you can actually taste how the flavors vary from season to season, and that’s really exciting to me.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The slight seasonal variances are part of what make hand-crafted cheese such a treasured food.

“You want something that varies from wheel to wheel — cheesemakers go to great lengths for a particular flavor profile and duplicate it, but you can’t really mess with the core ingredient, which is the milk,” says Lee. “If the cow ate wildflowers or sileage — you can tell the difference.”

Comté’s flavor makes it a natural player in an elegant lunch.

“One of the more popular sandwiches we have here is the ham, Comté, and butter sandwich on a baguette,” says Lee. “That’s four ingredients, that’s all it is. We use ham from Hidden Stream Farm which is local ham, and a nice schmear of butter, and a nice planing of the Comté and it’s delicious.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The surprising thing about the sandwich is how light and mellow it tastes — like much of the world’s best country-style foods, it’s both simple and profound, qualities it shares with its other Alpine-style cheeses Lee samples at her shop.

“I love to do side-by-side tastings for customers — you really can taste the difference between different cheeses,” says Lee.

Side by side, the three Alpine-style cheeses we tried had common traits but varied noticeably — Pleasant Ridge Reserve was buttery with an almost fruity bit of brightness and a grassy finish. The Comté had Swiss-like bite, and a very grassy finish at the end. The Gruyère we sampled had a drier, crunchier texture and a parmesan-like umami — the product that France 44 carries is cave-aged for an extra three months, giving it more depth and complexity.

Despite their quality, Lee doesn’t want her cheeses put on a pedestal.

“These cheeses are basically peasant food,” says Lee. “They’re made by farmers for themselves. They’re not fancy foods. I want to emphasize that. People say I work in a gourmet food store, but I don’t like the word “gourmet.” I want people to think about what they’re eating — and the stuff we sell here is everyday food.”

Sample Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Comte, and Gruyère at France 44 and the St. Paul Cheese Shop.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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