Cheddars are sharp
Bries are creamy
But nothing beats Winnimere
Supple, flavorful and dreamy
‘Tis the season, my friends. The holidays may be over but winter cheeses are in full swing. It was about a year ago when I first tried the most stunning cheese I’d ever had (and arguably still have ever had) in my life. It was at that moment I realized just how magnificent cheese could be. On the plate in front of me was a hunk of ooey, gooey, savory, rich, glistening delicacy that I, up until that point, had always considered to be in the same food category as Kraft string cheese and Cracker Barrel thin-slices. This was something else. This was of the earth, nuanced in flavor and a pulsing with life. This was Winnimere.
Now please don’t read this as me putting down Kraft cheese or people who like it. Yes, artisanal cheese is expensive which makes it elite and exclusive (though this is not the fault of dairy farmers and cheesemakers as I cover here). I’m not trying to shame anyone for what they eat, whether or not it is their choice or due to financial circumstances. I just want to highlight how magnificent cheeses like Winnimere are because they are born out of and embody the flavors of the natural environment. It’s worlds away from mass-produced Kraft cheese.
Winnimere, I would later learn, is based on a classic French/Swiss cheese called Vacherin Hauts-Doubs or Vacherin Mont d’Or. Vacherin is yet another cheese that the French and Swiss got into a scuffle over. Its production dates back to the eighteenth century. Vacherin cheeses were, and still are, produced on the Alps that straddle France and Switzerland. Switzerland took legal action in 1973 and claimed rights to the name Vacherin Mont d’Or. The French continued to produce the cheese on their territory but were legally obligated to call it a different name and settled on Vacherin Hauts-Doubs. I am partial to the French version because it is raw whereas the Swiss version is pasteurized. Winnimere follows the French tradition and is made with raw milk, but because it conforms to U.S. law, it is aged a few weeks longer.
Cheeses produced exclusively in the winter are unusual. Vacherin is unique because it is made in the autumn and winter months from the milk of cows eating cold-weather vegetation such as hay, silage and grain. The cheese was born out of circumstance. In the Franche-Comté region of France, winters were too harsh and cold to produce large format cheeses like big wheels of Gruyère; daily deliveries of milk in this climate were out of the question. As a result, cheesemakers created little wheels measuring roughly 12 inches wide and 2 inches deep. This is the shape that Vacherin is to this day. To hold this runny cheese together, cheesemakers wrapped it up in spruce bark, an ingenious solution that is still practiced today, imparting a woodsy, bacon-y taste to the Vacherin.
Winnimere is the brainchild of Jasper Hill Farm, an award-winning, highly successful creamery that opened its doors in 2003 in Greensboro, Vermont. Like Vacherin Haut-Doubs, Winnimere is produced during the winter months, is made with raw cow’s milk and is wrapped in spruce bark.
This winter, Jasper Hill sent the season’s first batches of Winnimere out in early December. Immediately, cheese stores and individuals alike bought them out of stock. My cheese shop has yet to get a hold of a case of Winnimere because demand is so high.
Procuring and Tasting:
Winnimere is sold across the United States. You can probably find it (if it’s not sold out) at grocery stores with a respectable cheese department or at cheese shops of course. It’s not cheap but neither is it small. Although I for one could devour an entire wheel of Winnimere myself, I don’t think a reasonable person would eat even half of it in one sitting. Consider splitting the cost (and joy) of indulging in this remarkable cheese with a friend.
The most common way to eat Vacherin and Winnimere is to cut a slit at the top and peel the rind back. Underneath you will find a pool of custardy goodness perfect for dipping bread into or eating by the spoonful.
Bacony, woodsy, slightly piquant and rich, Winnimere knocked my socks off.
I’m omitting the “Cooking with” section in this post because Winnimere is like ready-to-eat fondue. Nature has done the cooking for us here so there’s no need to meddle with it anymore. However, it is customary for some people to bake Vacherin if it’s not completely ripe and runny yet, top with garlic and white wine and serve.