There's more to Swiss cheese than Swiss cheese.
“Most Americans have an idea of what Swiss cheese is, and it's the one with holes,” begins Liz Thorpe, author of The Book of Cheese: The Essential Guide to Discovering Cheeses You’ll Love. “But in fact, there is no one Swiss cheese. There are dozens, even hundreds of different cheeses being made in this very small country.”
Take it from the expert, if your exposure to Swiss cheese has been limited to the pale yellow slice jazzing up a corned beef and rye, you’ve got a lot to learn. Though, it’s not exactly your fault.
A brief history
Switzerland has been a cheese hub since the Middle Ages and, like many European countries, it has always taken its culinary reputation very seriously. And in many ways, that seriousness has actually hindered its international appeal. A heavily government-subsidized organization called the Swiss Cheese Union enjoyed complete control over both production and export throughout much of the industrialized 20th century, dictating in no uncertain terms exactly how, where, and when Switzerland’s cheeses could be made. In the name of economic virility, the Union threw practically all of its weight behind just three top-sellers out of the country’s many beloved heritage styles—earthy, nutty Gruyère; the fragrant, Parmesan-like Sbrinz, and Emmentaler, better known as “the one with the holes.” (Appenzeller, a semi-hard cheese used in fondue, would join the pack later.) This effectively rendered the unapproved varieties obsolete and gave the rest of the world a very narrow understanding of Swiss cheesemaking.
That was until 1999, when the mighty Swiss Cheese Union dissolved amid a rash of corruption allegations. And while the Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) continues to closely monitor the production and distribution of 12 traditional “name-controlled” styles, today’s cheesemakers are free to experiment with new techniques and recipes. The resulting marketplace is larger and more diverse but, according to Konrad Heusser, Managing Owner of Swiss exporter Mundig Cheese, it’s hasn’t strayed too far from its roots.
“The base of all cheeses in Switzerland are the traditional AOP cheeses, whether hard, semi-hard or soft,” he notes. “Some dairies still produce one AOP cheese and a new creation, others are independent and thus commercially responsible from A to Z.”
“The vast majority of cheeses made in Switzerland are made of cow's milk,” explains Thorpe. “It's really unusual to find a sheep's or goat's milk cheese—they exist, but very, very nominally. You tend to find goats and sheep in more marginal climates, places that are really hot and dry, places that don't grow grass so well. Switzerland’s landscape and climate are really conducive to cows.”
Dairy farming is obviously central to cheese production, and, much like terroir in wine, Switzerland’s distinct topographical makeup plays a huge role in every step of the cheesemaking process.
“Swiss milk used for making cheese derives from farms with small herds, 10 to 40 cows,” says Heusser. “Unlike other places, cows are treated according to the ‘Raus-program,’ which means that the animals have to be outside in summer for 26 days per month [and] at least 13 days per month in winter. The higher up and the more hilly the location of a farm, the more traditional the grass is. There’s no way to plough the ground and grow new seeds.”
Most of the Swiss cheese exported to the States comes from these mountainous grasslands and falls under the Alpine category. Thorpe describes this family as “large-format wheels of aged cow's milk cheese that are dense and firm but still pliable and elastic in texture.” Flavors lean more nutty than salty, with bits of rostiness and sweet milk.
Softer cheeses are also on order, but they’re tougher to come by stateside.
“The other tradition that goes hand-in-hand with Alpine is soft, salt water-washed cheeses, though they can be difficult to find here,” Thorpe explains. “Many of them are made of raw or unpasteurized milk, and because they're soft and creamy and young, they're not aged. Raw milk cheeses aged under 60 days are illegal to export to the US. When you go to Switzerland, you see many more choices than you would here.”
What to try:
Americans might not have access to Switzerland’s entire bill, but a trip to a specialty market, cheesemonger, or online retailer can still yield some interesting wheels. Here are a few gems to add to your list.
“Raclette is somewhere between semi-soft and semi-firm in texture,” says Thorpe. “It’s also a washed-rind, so it develops this really pungent exterior. It's salty, full-flavored, and it's got theses salami, bacon-y notes with cream and hazelnut. You pour this intensely aromatic melted cheese over something that's neutral like a potato.” (Check out this viral video to see it in action.)
“Probably my favorite Alpine style is Challerhocker, a relatively new cheese made by a single producer,” Thorpe says, describing canton of St. Gallen native Walter Räss’ amply spiced creation. “He was an Appenzeller maker—he learned from his father—and he created a recipe that was a riff on that, like an amped up, intensified version. It's got a great story and he's an amazing cheesemaker.”
If you’re having trouble tracking this one down, scan the shelf for squat wheel stamped with a cartoon kid sporting a wide devilish grin. “Whenever we bring people to the dairy, Walter has to re-explain that the ‘scary boy’ on the label isn't scary at all,” says Jonathan Richardson, National Sales Manager for New York-based importer Columbia Cheese. “He's just excited because the challerhocker is ready.”
This semi-soft thermalized cow’s milk style hails from the canton of St Gallen, where its wrapped in fir bark for a distinct woodiness. “It's washed in salt water, so it's kind of stinky smelling but very meaty tasting, and it has this aromatic quality from the bark binding,” says Thorpe. “That's a cheese I really love. It's pretty hard to find here, but there are a number of other Swiss cheeses that are very similar but sold under different names.”
“It’s like Emmentaler and Appenzeller crossed together,” says Thorpe of this hard thermalized cow’s milk number from the canton of Thurgau. “It's got a very nutty, oniony, almost bacon-y flavor and it's washed in salt water so it develops this intense meaty aroma. The cheese is firm, but when you bite into it, it’s like cold butter, this amazingly rich, tender, texture. It's delicious.”
“I love to tell people about Etivaz,” Thorpe says. “There was a small group of farmers who decided that Gruyere production was too lax and they wanted to make a cheese the way Gruyere used to be made, like back in the olden days. It's made entirely by hand in high alpine huts during the summer. The cheesemaking happens in a cauldron over an open fire and after it’s smoked with the natural smoke. It's truly like tasting cheesemaking 200 years ago.”
Encased in a soft white rind, this spreadable triple crème might look mild at first, but it packs a punch. “They're buttery the way a Brie is buttery, but most of the Brie that comes to market here is all about butter and cream and salt because people like that,” Thorpe notes. “But these cheeses are, like, cow patties. I mean really animal-y. They're creamy and buttery but when you eat them you're like, 'Whew, I feel like I am experiencing the farm.'”