Most passers-by in the small Alpine town of Niederndorf in Austria probably thought the piles of earth and heavy machinery were something to do with the construction of a new traffic tunnel through a mountain.

In reality, the machinery on the German-Austrian border was being used to build a gigantic cave for something that often gives off fumes, but definitely doesn’t have wheels: cheese.

The cave, which can hold some 550 tonnes of cheese, was being built by the organic dairy factory Plangger to meet the growing demand for so-called cave cheese, or cave-aged cheese.

A specialist company had to be called in to build the cave, says Plangger cheese master Reinhard Brunner, using 18 tonnes of dynamite to blast and remove 55,000 tonnes of rock – all in the name of helping some cheese to develop a unique flavour.

These days, thousands of cheese rounds occupy the gigantic vault, stacked neatly on shelves. Tourists flock to the cave in all seasons to marvel at the cheese, admiring it through glass windows installed for hygienic purposes.

“There is enough space here for 550 tonnes of cheese in nine different varieties,” says Brunner – roughly 50,000 rounds at full capacity.

cave cheese

The cave can hold 550 tonnes of cheese, roughly 50,000 rounds at full capacity.

The temperature inside the cave remains a constant 11°C, and humidity levels stay at around 97%. “That simply cannot be artificially recreated,” explains Wilfried Karrer, who’s in charge of cave cheese for Austrian firm Almenland Stollenkaese.

With customers’ current appetite for organic products, as well as unusual types of cheese, cave cheese has seen a boost in popularity.

The best-known example of a cave cheese is the French Roquefort. True Roquefort must ripen in the famed limestone caves of the Combalou mountain range in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon to be sold under the name.

Another cave cheese is Spanish Cabrales, a semi-hard blue cheese that develops its flavour by being placed underground for a long period.

More recently developed cave cheeses are, however, also getting in on the trend, such as Atta-Kaese in south-western Germany, which is ripened in one of the country’s largest dripstone caves.

In other spots across Europe, old bunkers or entire fortresses are being converted to store cheese – such as in the French town of Jura, where up to 150,000 golden yellow Comte wheels are at any given time ripening in the Fort des Rousses along the French-Swiss border.

The use of a cave has obvious marketing potential, says Frank Schneider, cheese buyer for a fine goods firm in Munich. But “if the raw material is poor, the cave won’t help much”, he adds. The quality of the milk and the skill of the cheese master play a decisive role.

Schneider still sees cave cheese’s popularity as a positive thing, pointing to a newfound appreciation for old cheese-making traditions, a sharpened awareness of sustainability and support for more diversity in cheese varieties. – dpa/Georg Etscheit