The Commons
Food and Drink

The new Swiss

Switzerland’s cheesemakers are crafting artisanal cheeses that go far beyond the deli cheese we think of as ‘Swiss’

Wendy M. Levy is a veteran cheesemonger, a Marlboro College alumna, and a longtime Windham County resident. She is the proprietor of Brattleboro Cheese.

Originally published in The Commons issue #181 (Wednesday, December 5, 2012).

BRATTLEBORO—To the cheese neophyte, Swiss cheese is that smooth, semi-firm, pale cheese with big holes in it and a kind-of-bland-kind-of-acidic flavor. And that’s it. That’s the cheese from Switzerland, right?

Well, not really.

That cheese is not even called “Swiss” in Switzerland, and it isn’t called that in any respectable cheese shop, either. That cheese is called Emmentaler and, according to its Protected Designation of Origin — which protects the producers of food in the European Union there and, increasingly, around the world — that cheese must be made in Switzerland to be sold with that name.

We’ve all had Swiss cheese, so it must exist. So what is it, then?

Swiss Cheese is a type of cheese, rather than a singular cheese. It might look just like Emmentaler (or not, in the case of Alpine Lace lowfat industrial deli cheese). It might taste similar to Emmentaler.

But it does not have to be made in Switzerland, and chances are it’s not. Swiss cheese is made in France, Finland, Norway (Jarlsberg!), Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and plenty of other exotic locales.

* * *

Personally, I don’t even consider Emmentaler Switzerland’s most interesting cheese. I don’t dislike it, but compared to all of the other gorgeous cheeses coming out of that country, Emmentaler can often fall a little flat.

Many cheese lovers are familiar with other Swiss classics such as Gruyère and Appenzeller, and those are fine examples of expert cheesemaking.

Ask any cheesemaker: making cheese is no way to get rich. It’s labor-intensive in a way most jobs other than ditch-digging aren’t. It’s expensive: the proper care and feeding of dairy animals costs quite a bit of money.

It’s undervalued: with industrialized agribusiness, the price of cheese in supermarkets is synthetically and shockingly low, and it drives down the value of handmade, farmstead cheeses. Why should anyone pay $24 per pound for a handmade, carefully aged cheddar when you can buy a plastic-encased brick of factory cheddar for $3?

Because of all of these considerations, and because a beautiful Switzerland equals a Switzerland where tourists come and spend money (sound familiar, Vermont?), the Swiss government gives farming and cheesemaking families money to help them survive and to encourage the farming life, which helps maintain Switzerland’s abundance of natural beauty.

One problem with this subsidy is that, for many decades, cheesemakers were paid to make only Switzerland’s iconic cheeses, such as Emmentaler, Gruyère and Appenzeller. For a talented cheesemaker, it might get boring making the same cheese year in and year out.

But in the last decade, the Swiss government has changed its policy.

This reversal is good news for anyone who loves cheese, because Switzerland is a country perfectly poised to make some of the best cheeses in the world, and its cheesemakers do.

The country benefits from its geography not only in location — it’s the crossroads of Germany, France, and Italy — but in its specific terrain: verdant, low-lying pastures and high alpine fields with a unique array of grasses, flowers, and herbs upon which a hungry dairy animal may feast.

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