When it's winter in Switzerland, it's time for Vacherin Mont d'Or, a seasonal, artisanal cheese that is coveted by connoisseurs the world over.
This soft cheese is only available from mid-September to March or April, depending on the weather. Avid fans eagerly await its debut in the fall, and toward the end of the season, stash a few in the freezer for an out-of-season Vacherin fix.
Meaning "from a cow," vacherin is made with cow's milk, in particular, cows that graze in the summer at an altitude of more than 700 meters (yards) within the defined Controlled Origin Appellation (AOC) area in the Vallee de Joux in western Switzerland.
Although most of the cheese is consumed in Switzerland, some is exported to France, Japan, Canada, the United States and other countries.
It is hard to find here, and as such highly treasured. Vacherin Mont d'Or has been produced in the Les Charbonnieres area since 1865. The cheese has been protected with the AOC since 2003, guaranteeing its origin and manufacturing process.
Made in local dairies, each round of cheese is wrapped in a hand-cut strip of spruce bark. The rounds are matured for about 21 days, with daily turning and washing. The ripened cheese is packaged in a pine box. The finished cheese has a soft rind or crust and is almost runny inside. It has a strong flavor and aroma - heavenly to those who appreciate it.
Most people eat the cheese as is with a hearty, crusty bread, although it is also delicious when baked and served like fondue. Some devotees even eat the rind.
The best way to enjoy Vacherin Mont d'Or is in the village of Les Charbonnieres at the annual Fete du Vacherin in September where I recently traveled and covered in a two-part photo essay.
Click here for a Vacherin Mont d'Or recipe, including a similar-style substitute cheese.