“Swiss cheese” is recognized all over the world for its distinctive holes, yet authentic Emmentaler is made through a manual process that is subject to stringent quality controls.
Cheese is the national delicacy in Switzerland. It has a population of little under nine million people and produces 207,000 tons of cheese each year. Out of the more than 450 kinds of cheese that are produced, there is one that is regarded as the “king of cheese.” This dish is so well-known that it has become synonymous with the nation itself. Emmentaler, or “Swiss cheese” as it is commonly referred to in North America, is, of course, the cheese in question.
It is difficult to avoid exaggerating the prevalence of Emmentaler. One of the most instantly recognizable trademarks of Switzerland is the cheese with holes, right up there with Swiss army knives, cuckoo clocks, and cowbells. Key rings in the shape of an Emmentaler and socks designed after an Emmentaler can be found in souvenir shops. Six years prior to the Olympic Games in 1994, the Swiss ski team wore speed suits that resembled Emmentaler cheese, which garnered a lot of attention from around the world. Even in children’s literature and media, yellow cheese with holes is depicted as cheese. For example, in the book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and the animation “Peppa Pig,” cheese is always depicted as having holes.
In addition, it has a wide range of flavors, each of which develops uniquely with time. The youngest versions, which in Switzerland are matured for only four months, have a taste that is nutty and sweet, with a flavor that is not overpowering. As the cheese ages, its flavor becomes more robust and even peppery, and it takes on an aroma that is reminiscent of herbs or hay.
Despite this, there aren’t that many people who are familiar with the cheese that the majority of people consider to be Switzerland’s most famous cheese. According to Emmentaler Switzerland, the Swiss association of Emmentaler producers, the vast majority of “Swiss cheese” that is consumed outside of Switzerland is not “true” Emmentaler. This is the primary reason for this phenomenon. It is a fake, typically one that was produced industrially, outside of the Emmental region, and using a method that has very little in common with the artisanal and highly controlled cheesemaking process of Emmentaler AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée, also known as Protected Designation of Origin).
“We are a traditional, artisanal product that is produced from fresh milk,” said Fred Rufer, who serves as the vice director of Emmentaler Switzerland. “We are not an industrial product in which milk is brought in from 200, 300, 400, or 500 kilometers away and is then industrially transformed into a rectangular cheese-like product that, on occasion, has some holes in it,”
The Emmental is a picturesque region of Switzerland that is located in the country’s westernmost corner and is characterized by its undulating hills, which are interspersed with patches of forest and pasture and are dotted with traditional farmhouses that have broad, slanted roofs. It is also the only place in Switzerland where it is permissible, according to Swiss legislation, to produce authentic Emmentaler cheese, which is labeled with the AOP designation.
Outside of Switzerland, the law is far more relaxed, and there are plenty of other Emmentalers around. To make matters even more complicated, there are three more Emmentaler-inspired cheeses with Emmentaler in the name that have protected EU status. One of these cheeses originates in Germany, and the other two originate in France. Emmentaler Switzerland was unsuccessful in its attempt to obtain the sole right to trademark its cheese as Emmentaler in a legal action brought before the European Union very recently.
In the United States, for instance, the phrases Emmentaler and Swiss cheese “are used interchangeably,” according to Laura Werlin, an award-winning author who has written six books on cheese. Therefore, a cheese can still be labeled as Emmentaler even if it is produced in enormous blocks as opposed to wheels in the traditional manner in which Emmentaler is produced.
She claims that as a result of this, Emmentaler’s reputation has suffered in other countries. “True Emmentaler is not understood and not appreciated in the United States,” she explains, “because the terms Swiss cheese and Emmentaler are used interchangeably in the country.” “Here in this country, ‘Swiss cheese’ is more commonly found in the role of an ingredient than that of a table cheese. It is not taken as seriously as, for example, Gruyère and Appenzeller, which are also similar Swiss cheeses.
The milk is where the stringent restrictions that regulate the Emmentaler AOP in Switzerland get their start. Emmentaler dairies, which each have around 26 cows, are required to adhere to stringent requirements regarding the amount of room, fresh air, and exercise that each cow receives. There are no additives in the diet that the cows consume; they simply eat fresh grass and hay. They must reside no more than 20 kilometers away from the cheesemaker. After the cows have been milked, the raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized) must be transported to the cheese factory within twenty-four hours to ensure that the cheese will be as fresh as possible.
After that, the process will be able to start. Cheesemaker Bernhardt Hupfenboden opened a side door from his family’s kitchen into one of the region’s 110 Emmentaler cheese factories at Kaserei Hupfenboden, a hilltop farmhouse that dates back 150 years and functions as both a cheese factory and a home.
Hupfenboden, his wife, and an apprentice are the only people that are involved in running the business. That morning, when I came at work, Hupfenboden had already been there for three hours when I arrived. Beginning at 05:00, he inoculates the raw milk that was brought the night before with natural bacteria, which also includes proof-of-origin markers that deter counterfeiting. This is how he gets started. This does not imply that his days are over before they begin. Cheesemaking, followed by hand-washing of each machine, takes up the first half of the day. The afternoons are spent either selling cheese at market or taking care of administrative tasks.
Producing Emmentaler cheese is not just a labor-intensive endeavor, but also a challenging one. “Emmentaler is one of the most difficult cheeses to produce,” stated Rufer. Even if he is partial to his opinion, he is not the only one who holds it; other experts in the field of dairy production agree that “it’s the hardest cheese to make well” and that “the list of things that can go wrong is almost endless.”
The natural bacteria and rennet, which is a coagulant that causes the milk to curdle, had already done their work when I arrived at Kaserei Hupfenboden. In the massive vat of copper, there were little white curds that had formed. Hupfenboden sliced the curds with a cheese harp, an instrument that looks exactly like it sounds. After then, the procedure of heating started in the same vat. The curds were brought up to 52 degrees Celsius. He examined their dimensions and general uniformity on multiple occasions.
After an hour and a half, the curds were pushed into the cheese molds. During that time, the Hupfenboden family ate breakfast, which consisted of freshly churned butter, milk, bread, and chunks of the family cheese. They informed me that this meal was not for my benefit but was what they ate every day. Nothing was wasted; the whey was pumped off separately so that it could be used to feed the pigs of the nearby farmers.
On each mold, Hupfenboden painstakingly affixed the Emmentaler AOP mark, which consists of a circle with lively red stripes spreading out from it. In addition to being a symbol of AOP classification, the seal bears the manufacturer’s serial number as a decorative element. If you purchase any Emmentaler AOP product today, it will have this mark, which indicates that you may look up the number and determine where the cheese was produced online.
After that, each mold is subjected to a pressing that lasts for practically an entire day before being placed in a salt bath for two days. This step assists in the removal of excess moisture and produces a rind that is both resilient and protective over the cheese. At last, the cheese is transferred to the aging room, where it stays for at least four months to develop its flavor. Experts in quality control from Emmentaler examine it before releasing it for sale to the public.
None of this can simply be plugged in and used. Even after heating up the curds, even something as seemingly insignificant as the temperature of the day can effect the entire process, forcing the cheesemaker to make adjustments in accordance with the circumstances. The cost of making a mistake is high. One 90 kilogram wheel of cheese requires approximately 1,200 liters of milk, which is an investment of approximately 1,800 Swiss francs (approximately £1,600) for a cheesemaker such as Hupfenboden.
What is one indication of a flawless wheel of Emmentaler cheese? Those spaces. According to Rufer, a sample that is removed by inspectors using a cheese drill that is approximately 10 centimeters long and 1 centimeter in diameter should have two or three round, shining holes that are the size of cherries. In the event that this goal is not met, the cheesemaker will suffer a reduction in their overall score, which ranges from 1 to 20; in order to be put up for sale, each wheel of cheese needs to receive at least 18 points.
This is not merely a matter of personal taste in aesthetics. Because they’re a significant indicator of how successfully the process itself was carried out, proper holes are a hint that the cheese has a high overall quality. Other types of hard cheese go through only one stage of fermentation, during which the lactose in the cheese is converted into lactic acid. But Emmentaler includes a second stage, which is a fermentation of propionic acid, and this is made possible in part because the fermentation cellar is kept at a precise temperature of 19C-24C. During this stage, carbon dioxide is produced; however, it is unable to escape the cheese because of the hard rind that surrounds it. The gas creates the air pockets, often known as the holes. “No other cheese has this type of production step, that second step with a second fermentation,” said Rufer. “No other cheese has this type of production step.” “Only Emmentalers have this characteristic.”
One of a kind, and in recent years, it has been put in jeopardy. Cheesemakers have reported that it has been increasingly challenging to produce cheese with the correct amount of holes during the past few of decades. Something was obviously amiss with the procedure, which had been followed without incident for the previous 750 years. What did that mean?
In 2015, a study with an unusual discovery was published by Agroscope, the food research center of the Swiss federal government. The finding said that Swiss milk was getting too clean. The formation of the holes was aided in part by the presence of microscopic particles of hay, which served as the ideal “home” for carbon dioxide bubbles to adhere to. But during the past few decades, many dairies have switched to modern technology that are cleaner. For example, instead of milking cows by hand, they now use mechanical pumping equipment. As a result, milk has gotten purer.
In point of fact, Rufer mentioned that during the most recent general meeting of the Emmentaler consortium, one of the primary topics of discussion was whether or not to enable the addition of hay particles into the milk again. “Not in the capacity of a [artificial] additive,” he hurried to clarify. “But to be added to the milk in order to produce more holes, cleaner holes, and more beautiful holes.” “But to be added to the milk in order to produce more holes.”
The association has not yet made a decision. Restoring Emmentaler’s good name is another obstacle that must be overcome in addition to preserving the holes owned by Emmentaler. It would appear that the Emmentaler cheese is taken for granted in many parts of the world. A contributory factor to this is the vast number of imitations of Emmentaler. However, even within Switzerland, where residents are more likely to have tried Emmentaler AOP and understand the distinction between the two, the cheese is frequently regarded as more of a necessity than a treat. It’s possible that this is another disadvantage stemming from its long-standing popularity. Following the end of World War II, the Swiss Cheese Union, which was eventually disbanded in 1999, prioritized the marketing of three distinct cheeses, one of which was Emmentaler. “Emmentaler used to be the everyday cheese for everything,” said Rufer. “It was a standard.” As a consequence of this, he believes that its reputation in the modern day may be “a little bit old-fashioned.”
This old-fashioned notion is less relevant in modern times. To begin, despite the pervasiveness of its image, Emmentaler AOP is not particularly frequent. There are only 110 factories in Switzerland that produce Emmentaler AOP, and as a result, it accounts for just 8% of the country’s total cheese production. This is half the quantity of Gruyère AOP and even less than mozzarella. As a result of the intricate combination of art and science that goes into its production—something that I was able to witness firsthand—it is one of the most difficult cheeses to produce successfully.
In addition, the Emmentaler AOP is a delectable cheese.
At the Kaserei Hupfenboden, Hupfenboden sliced six-, twelve-, and eighteen-month-old Emmentaler for customers to sample. The younger cheese was delicate and sweet, whilst the older cheese had a more robust flavor that was almost acidic, nutty, and had a wonderful aroma of hay. After that, he sliced a piece of a very unique cheese: a wheel that had been aging for nine years. This was a highly unusual find for an Emmentaler, as the oldest cheese you often see in supermarkets is about 18 months old. The taste was excellent, and the flavors were even more concentrated and nuanced than expected.
This was not the “Swiss cheese” that I would have substituted for turkey and mustard in a sandwich and then gobbled down without ever tasting it. It was a totally different entity, one that was worthy of the title “king of cheeses” and even of its position as the primary culinary icon of Switzerland.