Swiss cheese is more than the sliced deli cheese you're used to; from semi-hard to hard cow’s milk cheese, the options are plentiful. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018
STORY / Cara Condon
How can an entire country make so many beautiful cheeses, yet some garbage, overly processed cheese slapped on the average deli sandwich gets to claim the mighty title “Swiss cheese”? There’s so much more to cheeses from Switzerland.
THE SWISS WERE CRAFTY FOLK
Many Swiss cheeses were made up in mountain villages during the summer months. High altitude farming was tricky and the crops were finicky, but the area was blessed with rich, abundant grasses. Cows thrived on those bountiful Alpine grasses, and as a result of their ideal diet, produced beautiful and nutritious milk. Cheesemaking was the solution for preserving the milk and surviving through the long winters. But there were some obstacles...
Generally, the younger the cheese, the higher the moisture content. As a result, the cheese will have a soft texture. (Moisture content is where cheese can get freaky and dangerous when not refrigerated.) The longer the cheese ages, the more the moisture (very slowly) evaporates. That makes these “hard” cheese styles easier to store and more durable. In other words, if you were making cheese in the summer on a mountain long before refrigerators existed, your best bet would have been to make a hard-style cheese. And because these cheeses had to be carried down the mountain (woof), it was helpful if there were fewer large wheels to transport.
SALT IS HEAVY
Salt is an essential part of the cheesemaking process. It helps draw out whey from curd and also acts as a preservative. Where do you get salt when you are literally climbing mountains to make cheese? You carry it. Those cheesemakers had to figure out a way to reduce the amount of salt used in their cheeses so they didn’t have to carry so much salt up a dang mountain. Early in the cheesemaking process, the main function of the salt is to help release additional whey from the separated curds. These Alpine cheesemakers discovered that heating the curd caused the milk to release the desired amount of whey without relying on a lot of salt. By cooking the milk, the lactose, or milk sugars, caramelized a bit, which turned out to be tasty. Today, this toffee-like “cooked curd” flavor is a desired quality.
Another signature characteristic of Swiss cheeses is the use of copper vats. In fact, to be called gruyère, Emmentaler, raclette, or even French Comté, these cheeses must be made using a copper vat. In cooking, copper is great for distributing heat evenly (it helps eliminate “hot spots”). Compared with many other metals, copper heats quickly and cools relatively fast—an important step in safe cheesemaking. As with many early innovations, these vats worked well and became the cookware of choice, passed down through the generations; only more recently have copper’s chemical contributions to the cheesemaking process been discovered. (When compared with identical cheeses made in stainless steel, the end product made in stainless was defective and did not taste as flavorful as the cheese made in the copper vat.) The beloved copper pot continues to be used by Swiss and Swiss-inspired cheesemakers today and remains one of the defining characteristics of those cheeses.
Okay, wait, so where were these guys (yes, it was mostly men) making their cheese if they were just scaling mountains all summer? Well, again, since the Swiss didn’t want to lug milk all over the place, they strategically built cheese chalets along the sides of mountains so they always had somewhere nearby to make cheese. There’s a cool word, transhumance, which refers to the act of marching cows up the mountain to follow the melting snow in the spring, and heading back down the mountain in the fall to avoid the snow. It’s similar to rotational grazing and ensures that the cows always have the freshest snacks.
SWISS CHEESES THROUGH TODAY
When you’ve got a country with all these amazing, diverse Alpine grasses and super happy cows—the ideal cheesemaking environment—you’re going to end up with a wide range of cheeses produced in that area. There are certainly many different styles of Swiss cheese, but generally, semi-hard to hard cow’s milk cheeses that come in large formats (think wheels ranging from twenty to ninety pounds) are the norm.
After World War I, Switzerland was faced with a surplus of cheese. Swiss cheesemakers banded together to fix the price of their goods in order to ensure demand and eliminate competition...you know, the exact definition of a cartel. A mandate was issued dictating that cheesemakers could produce only three cheeses: Emmentaler, gruyère, and Sbrinz. The government offered no financial aid or further support to those who made other traditional Swiss cheeses, and soon Switzerland's rich cheese tradition began to erode. The bulk of what ended up being exported to the United States wasn’t of the highest quality and only vaguely resembled Emmentaler (the one with the holes). Despite Switzerland’s rich cheesemaking history, this became what Americans know as “Swiss cheese.”
Those were the dark ages for Swiss cheeses. Fortunately, the “cheese mafia” broke up in the ’90s, and there’s a new crop of cheesemakers in Switzerland who are bringing back old recipes and coming up with twists on the classics. That’s great news for those of us who love cheese, as we are seeing new Swiss styles make their way into specialty cheese shops and American cheesemakers drawing inspiration from Alpine traditions by creating beautiful cheeses that pay homage to Switzerland.
TRANSHUMANCE & ALPAGE
So what is transhumance, exactly, and what does it have to do with my grilled cheese sandwich?
The Austrian, Bavarian, and Swiss Alps offer some of the most incredible pastures in the world (called alpage) that are packed with flowers and herbs and grasses that cows just love to graze upon. Cattle are led up to the Alpine meadows each spring after the snow melts. They spend their summers sunbathing and chowing down on these tasty nibbles while serving as natural lawn mowers to keep the land as tame pasture instead of overgrown forest.
The milk from these ladies is especially rich and delicious, perfumed with grassy and herbal notes. Rather than truck the milk down the mountains, the fresh milk is turned into giant wheels of Alpine cheese (including those eighty-pound wheels of gruyère). The process involves heating the milk in massive copper pots over open fires on-site in cheese huts high in the mountains.
At the end of the season, the whole crew comes back down the mountain to much fanfare. Bryan Bland, a regional manager for Murray’s Cheese in Los Angeles, attended last year’s Désalpe Festival in Charmey, Switzerland, and witnessed with his own eyes the cows parading home from the high pastures. Adorned with garlands of flowers and giant decorative bells, five herds of cows and three herds of goats (plus a herd of Swiss mountain dogs) proudly took to the streets to be adored by people of all generations from all over the world. The herd’s best milkers wear the biggest bells, and these grandes dames, with their flowered headdresses, walk first in the procession.
The procession made a deep impression on Bland. (Try watching a YouTube video of the event without crying.) “This celebration really brings people together, all members of the dairying community—the makers, the mongers, the herdsmen—that level of community was very new to me,” he said. “Dairying is such a huge part of Swiss culture, and seeing the cow people and the cheese people together reminded me why we sell this type of village cheese.”
This entire process (including the cow parade) is known as transhumance, and some of the best cheeses in the world are made in this honored tradition (look for the word alpage on a label to taste a cheese prepared in this manner). In an industry that relies on the natural rhythms of animal husbandry, lactation, and horticulture as feed, this seasonal trek represents a commitment to tradition and quality that makes us want to hug a Swiss cow.
— Lisa Futterman
Lisa Futterman sells cheese to restaurants for a living and travels and writes about cheese/beverages for fun. A former chef and cooking instructor, she can often be found walking her dog, Pepita, in Chicago's Noble Square.
Sure, you can find gruyère all over the place, but this is REAL gruyère. You know how sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France? Same with gruyère. When you see those letters "AOP" on the label, you're getting the real deal. Aged for a little more than a year, this cheese is super savory and onion-y. It melts like a dream and makes for a heavenly grilled cheese. $12 for 8 ounces
Racelette can be a stinker, but that's why I love it. With notes of sweet cream and ham and the faintest touch of campfire, this cheese is melted under a heat source until it's bubbly, then scraped (racier means "to scrape") over a pile of potatoes, ham, and pickles. It's the definition of food pron. A super beer-friendly cheese, raclette pairs best with something that's got some funk, like Goose Island Matilda. $9 to $18 for 8 ounces
Alp Blossom looks like it just came from Coachella, all covered in wildflowers and Alpine grasses. A little mild, with beautiful floral and hay-like aromas, this cheese is a celebration of the richness of the Alpine region. It's a showstopper and sure to rack up likes when you post it on Instagram. $16 for 8 ounces
Charllerhocker (the C is silent) has a cult following in the cheese world. The name translates to "cellar sitter" and the label is emblazoned with a pretty terrifying illustration of a dweller in a cellar. Yes, the cheese is aged in a cellar where it picks up cool, earthy notes, along with intense flavors of caramelized onions, beef broth, and brown butter. Everyone who tastes this cheese claims it as their favorite after the first bite. $16 for 8 ounces
Want the full cheese beat? Check out our Cheese section for more cheese histories and picks.