From the Farm: The Real World of Swiss Cheese

Switzerland keeps itself politically and economically separate from its neighbors, but for hundreds of years its cheese was mobile, with recipes and tradition moving fluidly across borders.

If you’re anything like me, you grew up understanding Swiss cheese to be a plasticized block sliced at the deli counter alongside your mom’s quarter pound of ham. It had big holes. If you’re really like me, you kind of hated Swiss cheese because it had a sweet, oddly nutty flavor, like milk boiled too long in a pot. I campaigned for American or (exotica!) Provolone whenever possible. Having spent the last two weeks in Switzerland, Austria and southern Germany (Bavaria) I’ve shed the last vestiges of my childhood misconceptions. The cheese making scene here is as innovative as in the States, with countless young makers ditching the traditional, regional cheeses (Emmenthaler and Appenzeller most notably) to invent new recipes that riff on the old school basics. This being said, tradition is respected, protected and celebrated.  It’s truly the best of both worlds.

While E.U. borders now designate Germany, Austria and Switzerland as separate countries, their shared cheese history makes these three more akin to one another than, say, southern (Bavarian) Germany is to northern Germany. Today, Switzerland keeps itself politically and economically separate from its neighbors to the north and east but for hundreds of years its cheese was mobile, with recipes and tradition moving fluidly across borders.

Unique to this geographical intersection around Lake Constance is the reliance on cows, generally Brown Swiss, which, with smaller, sturdier bodies are uniquely equipped for walking and pasture consumption. For thousands of years animals have been led from the town valleys to the mountain alps from June through September, so the lower altitude lands may be used for hay production to feed animals during prolonged winters. This remains the case today. Goat and sheep cheeses are rare; most cheeses are produced from raw milk (or thermalized, which is a gentler form of pasteurization not recognized by the U.S. FDA, and so considered raw milk in the States); the majority of cows are fed grass and hay, without any silage (fermented hay); and the recipes derive from a time when cheese was a storage vehicle for milk—meant to last poor, rural people through long and bitter winters.

The inspiration for my childhood deli experiences is the western Swiss cheese Emmenthaler, whose production originated in the canton of Bern. Historically produced in enormous (160 pound) wheels, the cheese’s distinctively sweet flavor and gaping holes (or “eyes”) is the result of long, warm cave ripening that activates the bacterial culture proprionibacterium freudenreichii or shermanii, which consume lactic acid and produce the gas carbon dioxide. The pliable texture of the cheese allows the formation of holes rather than cracks or fissures. While the name “Emmenthaler Switzerland” is protected in Switzerland, the E.U. does not recognize “Emmenthaler” as a protected designation of origin (PDO) name, and so block cheese with holes can be made anywhere (and is, in great quantity, in Austria, Germany and Finland, not to mention the U.S.) and called Emmenthaler. Many cheese makers got their start producing Emmenthaler, but consumption was already declining thirty years ago, and without government subsidies its production was not be financially viable. And so, other options were pursued.

Gruyere AOP (name protected in Switzerland but also recognized by the E.U. as a PDO) is produced communally in five cantons of western Switzerland. Dairy farmers contract with a local dairy (by law, within eighteen kilometers) and deliver their milk twice a day, 365 days a year. Dairies (170 are in villages, 53 are on alps and produce from June –September, weather permitting) make the cheese and age it for three months before it is transported to an aging facility where it spends another two to thirteen months. While the cheese’s production is strictly regulated there are checks and balances between the milk maker, cheese maker and cheese ager that enable this production system to continue as it has since the 1100s.

To the east, in the areas around Appenzell, the cheese Appenzeller is made following a similar recipe, but is produced in much smaller wheels. Unlike Gruyere, Appenzeller has its own regulating body but isn’t an AOP or PDO cheese. 53 dairies make their version of Appenzeller and send wheels off to be aged by aging facilities responsible for its sale. The demand for the cheese, especially abroad, has steadily declined, leading individual makers to invent their own recipes. Two notable newcomers are Scharfe Maxx, produced by Kaserei Studer in the Thurgau canton, which was invented by 3rd generation cheese maker Daniel Studer in 1999 who, faced with an excess of milk, needed to diversify his line. Adding cream to full fat cow milk and producing his starter culture in-house from skimmed milk yielded an entirely new cheese, though the make steps resembled those for Appenzeller. The texture is like sun-softened toffee, the flavor bouillon-savory cut with a spill of cream.

Walter Rass of Kaserei Tufertschwil in the canton of St. Gallen arrived at a similar conclusion in 2001 after 27 years of Appenzeller production, 16 of which led to awards as a Top 10 quality producer. This was a key stepping stone to the invention of his Challerhocker, made from full fat milk and aged 8-11 months rather than Appenzeller’s base of 6. His starter is housemade from his wife’s yogurt. Tasting alongside a three month Appenzeller (which was gummy if pleasant enough), Challerhocker was intensely creamy yet firm, with a clear undercurrent of garlic and caramelized onion. It was more food than cheese.

Another notable innovator to look for is Kaserie Stofel, one of a very few to play around with soft cheeses, most luckily for the U.S. the pillowy washed rind Forsterkase, bound in spruce bark and an inspiration to the American gem Winnimere from the Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm.

While these cheeses are rare, most are available nationwide at Whole Foods, or by mail order from Cowgirl Creamery (CA), DiBruno Brothers (Philadelphia), Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge, MA) and Murray’s Cheese (NYC). They are revelatory and worth seeking out.