Meet Caroline Hostettler - Swiss Cheese Champion

At a point not too long ago, Swiss Cheese in America meant one of the PDO cheeses: Gruyère, Emmentaler, Appenzeller, Sprinz. In 1999, after a relaxing of the rules around production of innovative, new cheeses utilizing the country's high quality milk, a new crop of small-production artisan cheeses began to appear. Many of these small producers would have remained a Swiss secret but for the efforts of Caroline Hostettler and her vision to bring these gems to the US market.

Today, Caroline and her Fort Myers, Florida-based company, Quality Cheese, imports and educates on the stellar variety of Alpine cheeses, including the renowned Rolf Beeler line, which she introduced in the US. More recently, her innovative Adopt-an-Alp program connects consumers with Alpkase, a rare and magical taste created seasonally in small huts nestled 4000 to 6000 feet.

Caroline sat down with us recently to talk about her life in cheese and the upcoming Swiss Cheese Journey in July, 2018. Along the way, she'll be sharing her favorite flavors and vistas in her native country. (And, yes, if you join us, you will enjoy a breathtaking Alpkase experience!)

CJ: Tell me about your childhood – were you always a cheese fan?

CH: I grew up in Biel/Bienne, in Switzerland, near both the German and French borders. I didn't grow up on a farm, but with a deep affection for farming. Many of my aunts and uncles had farms, so I was always close to food, farming and cooking.

One of my favorite memories is the weekly visit to get our cheese each Saturday with my dad. We would return with 1 kilo blocks. My mother would insist this was way too much for our family of 3 and dad would point out: "do we have any left from last week?" This was a formal argument in our home.

CJ: How did you come to cheese?

CH: I grew up wanting to be a journalist but the Swiss universities did not offer a college for journalism so I took a stage, or apprenticeship, with a sports paper where they take you through all the facets: layout, photography, editing, research. I spent the next 7 years following bike riders all over Europe but grew tired of speaking of nothing but bikes, racing and the strong male opinions.

I made the move to freelance, writing about food for several Swiss and German newspapers and magazines. One of my assignments was writing about the Swiss affineur, Rolf Beeler. After the interview, we became friends and I helped him with markets and events.

In 1996 my husband and I moved to Florida. At the time, we had a 3 year old and a 1 year old. The cheese selection in Florida was horrible. I remember standing at the supermarket deli and the lady next to me ordered Muenster Cheese, "sliced thin". It was so bizarre to me.

CJ: So that was the lightbulb moment?

CH: Yes, about a year after we moved here, I spoke with Rolf, complaining that I might have to bring his cheese here so I could have good cheese. With my background in food journalism, I'd been following the food scene closely so I knew which chefs I wanted to approach. I had a few in New York that might be interested so I brought some cheese over and did a 2 week tour of five cities, tasting cheese out of a cooler.

At first, we relied exclusively on Rolf's incredible line of cheeses but, as relationships with cheesemakers grew, we expanded to include cheese from small producers and this has become part of my mission.

CJ: Can you explain a bit about the changing landscape of Swiss cheese and the rise of these small-production products?

CH: The Swiss Cheese Union (formed in 1914) was government-led organization that supported specific cheesemakers. They wanted people to produce standard cheeses of Switzerland: Gruyère, Sprintz, Emmentaler, Tilsit, Appenzeller. Cheesemakers received supports and the government was in control of what was produced and exported.

In 1999, the supports were removed. All of a sudden, cheesemakers who produced the 5 or 6 standard Swiss cheeses were facing a crisis. It was either become creative and try new things, or have a very hard time.

Around 2000 – my beginnings – each cheesemaker began trying to make a signature cheese, something special to their herd or area. Different styles emerged, blues, soft cheeses, it's a wonderful landscape right now.

Over the years, I realized summer cheeses made high up in the Alps were clearly different and special. I decided to support those producers, to show them their efforts are worth it and bring an awareness of the commitment and hard work that goes into them.

CJ: And this is where the Adopt-an-Alp program was created?

CH: Most people don't know what an Alp is. You can call something Alpine, but it has nothing to do with Alpkase.

Alpkase is defined by 2 things: the cheese is made only in summer when the animals and people are at a higher elevation together. The cheese must be made right there during the season which lasts about 100 days, depending on weather and altitude. It is the epitome of seasonal and local. On the summer Alp, you'll find up to 110 different herbs and flowers, whereas in the valley, you'll find maybe a dozen.

The situation on the Alp usually it's more lack than luxury. Some huts don't have running water, they use spring water. They cook over fires. The cheese team lives and works together on the mountain. Sometimes people have friction, it's not easy to spend those summers working as hard as they do.

The first year, the program featured 7 farmers and now we have 22 farmers and a waiting list. They see that there is a market for their cheeses, that what they are doing is respected; not just in words, but in people buying their cheese. Over here, customers get to try cheeses they never would get to. If we do not save this tradition, these wheels will never come back. It's a very satisfying program.

CJ: It's so exciting to have an Alp experience as part of the tour.

CH: Yes, we will have lunch on an Alp and maybe breakfast on another one. The trip is really beautiful. We have spiked it with so many details and little things, it will be a great experience. To me, one of the most amazing aspects of Switzerland is how tiny the country is, yet how diversified. We have 4 official languages and so many influences from all the neighboring countries. They are reflected in the architecture, the food. Traveling around, there is so much history.

We'll be visiting beautiful dairy farms and selected cheesemakers as well as having the Alpage experience. We have a fabulous day of wine planned and, of course, there will be chocolate. We'll meet Rolf and do a cooking class with him and take a boat tour on one of the beautiful lakes. In Zurich, we'll visit their oldest grocery store, founded in the 1800s. There are so many great things on this itinerary. I can't wait!

For more information about the Swiss Cheese Journey, departing July, 2018, please check the website or reach out to Anna.