Tete de Moine is a true masterpiece of Swiss cheese making and it is by all accounts the definition of a true gourmet cheese. It is produced by only nine dairies in the northwestern section of the Swiss Alps called the Bernese Jura where French is the predominate language. Tete de Moine is thought to have been produced by the monks at the Bellelay abbey since 1192 but it has been fully noted for production and sale since 1520. Originally the cheese was called Fromage Bellelay after the abbey where it was produced but it was renamed Tete de Moine in 1790. The English translation of Tete de Moine is "monks head" referring to the tax (paid with cheese) by the abbey to the French kings and the shaved circular bald spot on the monks heads.
The Swiss government has insured that the production of this cheese will always be in the traditional way by granting it the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). With this designation the cheese can only be produced with local milk using the traditional methods and specifications approved by the PDO board. Cows, and cheese making, remain an important part of Swiss life and practically all Swiss cheese is made from cow's milk. Switzerland prides itself on putting quality first, and their cheese is no exception. Taking the cows up to the early summer alpine pastures remains a time-honoured custom however the cows do not remain in the same place throughout the summer, but move up to higher pastures as the season progresses. This procedure allows the grazed fields to regrow and be cut for winter hay. Swiss cows only graze on grass in summer and eat hay that has been cut from alpine fields before winter. NO silage and NO additives of any kind are allowed if their milk is to be made into cheese or other dairy products.
Tete de Moine is an unpasteurized, pressed curd cow milk cheese that is lightly cooked. The milk is delivered to the local dairy twice daily to ensure freshness and is processed within modern facilities but by time consuming traditional methods. This is NOT a factory made cheese. The two milkings are mixed in vats and mildly heated to 100 degrees and then curdled with rennet, then reheated to 125 degrees to expel the whey. The curd is then cooled and then pressed in small wooden molds to remove any excess whey and water. The newly formed mini-wheels are then placed in a brine bath for 12 hours to expel the last of the water and to form the outer rind. After the brine bath they are allowed to dry and begin the aging process. The cheeses are aged for 4 to 6 months in cool humid caves. While aging in these caves the mini-wheels are brushed with brine and a bacteria culture to continue the formation of the sticky rind. For those who worry about such things, Tete de Moine has a fat content between 45% and 50%.
Tete de Moine mini-wheels will have sticky or hard brown outer rinds depending on the dairy and weigh about 1.5 to 2 pounds. The interior paste is firm with a straw color which will darken as it ages. Please note that the cheese ages from the outside to the inside so the area closer to the rind may look darker or browner so this is not a sign of poor quality, it is natural. The interior paste may also have small holes throughout. This cheese is very aromatic even before cutting it. The aroma is like roasted nuts combined with earthy wine and musty wood, it is fantastic and will fill the room! The flavor is full bodied and very complex with hints of nuts and sweet fruit. In our opinion, if you are looking for a gourmet Swiss mountain style cheese, Tete de Moine exhibits much more flavor and aroma than Emmental and Gruyere. To truly experience the full extent of the flavor and aroma it should be shaved (NOT cut) with a knife into paper thin slices while it is still cold. We suggest that any lover of this cheese should invest in a griolle. This wonderful tool allows for the perfect shaving of a mini-wheel of Tete deMoine, with a minimum of effort, every time you use it. If you do not use a griolle we suggest thinly cutting the top off and shaving it with your knife. The thin, sticky rind is edible even though it looks and feels like it should be removed. Store this cheese in the refrigerator wrapped in waxed paper or aluminum foil and then placed in a zip-lock bag, however we do not think that you will have any leftovers to worry about.
Serve Tete de Moine with fruits such as sliced apples, pears and grapes it is also fantastic with cured meats like prosciutto and thinly sliced salami. Try shaving it over a fresh salad or be like the Swiss and serve it with the top cut off, rind less and shaved, placed on caraway flavored crackers or sprinkled with pepper and powdered cumin.
Wine parings: Big reds like Hermitage and Chateauneuf-du-Pape it also pairs well with Zinfandel and ales, porters and stout.