A few years ago at the Swiss Cheese Awards in the Vallée de Joux with over 700 different cheeses in 29 different categories to be judged, it fell to me and a merry little team of four other cheesy people to taste and evaluate 19 different Emmentalers. It was a fascinating exercise, even if I did come away vowing not to eat cheese for a month (well, maybe a week). I also came away with a renewed respect for dear, sweet, mild-mannered Emmentaler – so misunderstood, so undervalued amongst cheeses – and some very happy memories of the serene and beautiful Vallée de Joux.
One of the chief misunderstandings came about because Switzerland failed to protect the name of the big cheese with the big holes. The result has been that anyone, from Bavaria to Wisconsin, can make a Swiss-type cheese full of holes and call it Emmental. Most are sweet, soapy, rubbery and devoid of any noticeable flavour. Genuine, properly aged Swiss Emmentaler with the red and white label is in a different league, worth a detour if not a special journey.
It’s not that the Swiss didn’t try to protect the name. Starting in the 1870s, they made successive attempts but were thwarted at every turn, notably by the Germans and the French who claimed the right to make their own ‘Emmental’ (or ‘Emmentaler’). In 2006 the Swiss belatedly succeeded in securing an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC (now Appellation d’Origine Protégée or AOP), a label reserved for Swiss-produced Emmentaler. This protected status regulates how the cheese is made in Switzerland and confines production to a handful of cantons.
By way of establishing the big cheese’s credentials, let me give you a little slice of history. Evidence of some kind of hard cheese being made in the bucolic Emmental region of canton Bern goes back to the thirteenth century, though for lack of precise descriptions (these were pre-Instagram days, remember), we can’t know how it looked or tasted. What’s certain is that it bore little resemblance to today’s giant wheels – early Emmentaler, as with all of Switzerland’s traditional hard cheeses, was made on a small scale in tiny mountain dairies in the summer months only, and stored in special storehouses known as Spycher.
The summer grazing pastures or alps, sometimes owned by Bernese absentee landowners, sometimes owned directly by the farmers, were worked by cowhands known as Küher. These were drawn from the ranks of the non-inheriting sons of Emmentaler farming families. According to local law, the youngest son (not the eldest, and never the daughters) stood to inherit the farm, but to do this, he must compensate his siblings. At any given moment there were likely to be a number of skilled young chaps floating about the valley with money in their pocket, time on their hands and farming and cheesemaking skills under their belt – but no land and no farmhouse. A logical step was to hire themselves out as Küher.
In the eighteenth century – Emmentaler’s golden age – many of these Küher became veritable cheese entrepreneurs, making and selling their cheeses both at home and abroad. Of course those expat cheesemakers who were working in, say, Germany, named their product Emmental/er. These are the ones who later would stoutly resist Switzerland’s exclusive claims to the name.
In the nineteenth century, the Emmental was the first Swiss region to bring cheesemaking down from the mountains into the valleys. The village Käserei or cheese dairy was born. Freed from the constraints of the summer transhumance, Emmentaler could now be made all year round. This greatly simplified model of cheesemaking, together with increased milk quantities, meant that cheeses became progressively larger. Today’s Emmentaler measures about a metre across (for me, this is from the top of my head to the tip of my outstretched arm) and around 20 cm high, with an average weight of 100 kilos (over 200 lbs) – picture a huge tractor tyre without the treads. While Swiss production is not limited to the Emme Valley, it is here that the cheese was born and continues to be made, mainly in small village dairies.
The vast copper-lined cheesemaking vats contain up to 6,500-litres of milk, from which will come five mighty wheels of cheese (and an awful lot of whey). Two different kinds of starter bacteria are added, one to acidify the milk, the other to ensure formation of the all-important holes (more on the holes later), as well as a dose of rennet to coagulate the milk.
Once the curds are firmly set, the cheesemaker activates the cheese harps which cut the curd into rice-sized grains. Emmentaler is a ‘cooked’ cheese, meaning the curds are heated to release as much whey as possible, giving a cheese with low moisture and firm, dense texture. This lack of moisture means the cheese can be matured to a ripe old age. Subsequent steps in the process – pressing, salting, ageing – will all contribute to this objective. The final step is a six to eight-week spell in a warm, moist room where the famous holes will form.
Aah, the holes! They’re an essential part of the Emmentaler story. The AOP rules actually stipulate the extent and size of them: there should be at least 1000 and no more than 2000 per cheese, each with a diameter of between 1 and 4 cm (I’d love to meet the person who has to count/measure them). One of those cultures added at the beginning contains a specific (“propionic”) bacteria, otherwise known as ‘the hole-maker’, which gobbles up and converts the cheese’s lactic acid to produce carbon dioxide bubbles…ta-da, we have holes! You can see this in action in the cellars of any Emmentaler dairy: the upper surface of the young cheeses, which starts out perfectly flat, begins to swell up and the sides to bulge out, proving that those hole-makers are hard at work.
Back to the Swiss Cheese Awards and the Emmentalers we were asked to judge. These had been carved in huge sections, from which our team leader cut smaller slices, then little stubby pieces.
First we had to judge the aspect, both crust and flesh (5 points). Crusts varied in colour from pale primrose-yellow, almost the same colour as the flesh, to speckled and reddish-brown. Some were quite black, indicating they had been cave-ripened (höhlengereift).
As for the flesh, there was a wide variation in colour, the deepest yellow being from summer cheeses (from the carotene in the grass, which gives colour), the palest (like the one below) being from cows overwintered and fed on hay. As for those holes, it was our turn to measure them. We were instructed they should be cherry- to plum-sized and fairly evenly spaced, and there should be no cracks in the flesh – a couple of cheeses were marked down on this basis.
Then came the taste test (10 points) where there were surprisingly big differences from one cheese to another. Only a handful conformed to the stereotypical view of Emmentaler (bland, forgettable). Most were sweet-smelling and tasty in varying degrees. Some finished on a slightly bitter note (a welcome seasoning in some cases, but overwhelming in others). The standouts were beautifully aromatic, sweetly creamy with an expressive, mildly nutty, long-lasting flavour. The final note (5 points) was for texture, which in the favourite examples was appealingly elastic, and in the least-liked, rubbery or hard and/or dry.
All cheese samples were anonymous, of course; we didn’t even know how many months’ ageing each had had, though the cave-ripened ones were obvious from the colour of the crust. I went back to my Swiss cheese book to remind myself of the different taste profiles, depending on the age of the cheese. Young Emmentaler – between four and eight months old – is by nature demure and mild-mannered. For me, it’s reminiscent of one of those paintings by the Bernese artist Albert Anker, all embroidered smocks, gingham frocks, apple-cheeked girls, breakfast tables laid with buttered Züpfe (the classic Bernese braided bread) and warm milk. The flesh is pale primrose-yellow, fragrant, firm but supple, the flavour mildly nutty with a good balance of sweetness and acidity.
Aged over eight months, the cheese starts to flex its muscles a bit and begins to lose its gentle, amenable character. Then come the longer-aged ones, whose crusts vary in colour from buff-brown through orangey-red to frankly black. The latter is matured for at least twelve months, of which a minimum of six must be in special limestone caves (hence “cave-ripened”). The flavour is feisty and pronounced, quite different from classic Emmentalers. If you like cheeses with character, this could be the one for you.
Next time you’re hovering, undecided, over the cheese counter, give a piece of Emmentaler a chance – Swiss, of course. If you can find out how many months it’s been aged, that’s a help (my favourites are between 8 and 12 months old). Best of all, ask for a taste. Maybe you’ll change your mind, as I have.
Footnote: while at the Awards, I met representatives of Gourmino (www.gourmino.ch), based in the heart of the Emmental in Langnau, who work with 13 different cheesemakers in small village dairies around the country. They are absolute missionaries for topnotch, hand-crafted Emmentaler, which they select carefully and age in refashioned military underground cellars. Find their cheeses both in Switzerland (look for Gotthelf Emmentaler AOP, a mountain Emmentaler made by Bernhard Meier in Hüpfenboden with a Slow Food label), and abroad, under the Gourmino label.