The famous hard cheese is produced in German-speaking Switzerland and exported all over the world.

The famous hard cheese is produced in German-speaking Switzerland and exported all over the world.
© New Africa / Shutterstock

The cheese with the holes: Emmental cheese


Although not all Swiss cheeses have holes, the phrase "as full of holes as a Swiss cheese" has caught on. The reason for this is the great popularity of a very special variety: Emmentaler.

Emmental cheese is named after its place of origin, the Emme river valley in the canton of Bern. Cheese has been made in this picturesque hilly landscape for centuries. A "beautiful Emmenthaler cheese" was first mentioned in writing in 1557: a Bernese councillor presented it to a Basel doctor as a wedding gift. Like most Swiss cheeses at the time, this wedding gift was probably made on an alp. There the cows found grass in abundance; well-fed they gave plenty of milk, which was preserved as cheese for the winter. And the Emmental had a locational advantage: as the Alps were less high here than in other regions, the summer season was longer. This meant that more cows could be fed for longer, resulting in more milk - and consequently more cheese.

The Emmental was also well connected to international trade routes. A large proportion of Emmental cheese was already being exported in early modern times. At that time however, the name only referred to its origin; today's "Emmentaler" did not yet exist, as the cheeses varied depending on the cheesemaker and the amount of milk available. For many of the Emmental mountain farmers called "Küher", the production and sale of alp cheese was a good business.

From the mountain to the valley

This changed rapidly when the patrician Rudolf Emanuel Effinger founded the first Emmental cheese dairy in Kiesen in 1815. This was quickly followed by others, and within a few years a large proportion of Emmental cheese was being produced in the valley, and soon also outside the canton of Bern. The cows started working for cheese dairies, farming or breeding cattle. Innovations in these areas increased the milk yield of the cows, making milk available in large quantities all year round, which in turn had a positive effect on cheese production. International trade also began to flourish in the 19th century thanks to the invention of the railroad, steamship and telegraph.

The fact that Emmental was now traded on a large scale drove its standardisation, which was made possible by technological and scientific advances. As a result, the holes, which had previously been more or less present, depending on the cheese, were now deliberately created and the wheels became larger and larger. The level of export duties was not based on the weight of the wheels, but on the number of pieces - to this day, an Emmental cheese weighs 90 kilograms on average.

This heyday of Emmental cheese came to an end at the beginning of the 20th century. High tariffs caused margins to collapse, the market was highly competitive and some cheese dairies had to close. Around the turn of the century, many Emmental cheesemakers emigrated abroad in search of a better life and took their cheese expertise with them. For example, David Moser from Arni in Emmental founded a cheese dairy in Bog ˘ atepe in eastern Turkey, where so-called "Gravyer" cheese is still produced today - although it is named after Gruyère, it is more similar to Emmental.

With the outbreak of the First World War, the Swiss government declared a ban on exports - the cheese was to be made available for domestic consumption. In order to compensate for the slump in cheese dairies' income during this period, the state-run Swiss Cheese Union was founded in 1919, which was responsible for marketing the hard cheese varieties Sbrinz, Gruyère and Emmentaler until the 1990s and also supported them financially with export subsidies. Since the dissolution of the Union, the variety organisation "Consortium Emmentaler Switzerland", founded in 1997, has taken care of this.

In 2006, Emmentaler was registered in Switzerland as a protected designation of origin AOP. Nevertheless, cheese is still produced under this name in many countries today, including the Allgäu, Bregenzerwald, France and the USA, where it is often simply referred to as "Swiss cheese".

How the holes get into the cheese

Only silage-free raw milk may be used for the production of Swiss Emmentaler AOP, which means that the cows are only fed grass or hay. After milking, the milk is cooled and taken to the cheese dairy, where it is processed within 24 hours. The cheesemaker heats it to 32 degrees, stirring constantly, and "inoculates" it with bacterial cultures. In addition to lactic acid bacteria, which convert lactose into lactic acid and contributes to the characteristic aroma of the cheese, propionic acid bacteria are also mixed into the milk. These play a decisive role in hole formation. Rennet is then added, causing the milk to solidify and coagulate within 40 minutes. This is cut into many small pieces with a cheese harp to produce the curd, which consists of pieces of curd and whey. The cheesemaker heats it to 53 to 54 degrees for 20 to 60 minutes and then pumps it into cheese moulds. The whey flows out through holes in the bottom, leaving the cheese grains behind.

Before pressing, the cheese mark is placed on the cheese, which will identify the finished wheel as genuine Emmental. Pressing takes 20 hours so that the cheese grains can combine well into a mass. The young cheese wheel is then placed in a brine for two to three days for salting. During the subsequent resting period of at least 120 days, the typical holes form. The propionic acid bacteria ferment the lactic acid into propionic acid and form carbonic acid gas in the process. This binds to small hay particles in the cheese dough, making it harder for the gas to evaporate. The fact that the holes in Emmental are larger than in most other cheeses has to do with its storage temperature, which is relatively high at 19 to 24 degrees.

After six to eight weeks, the holes have reached their final size and the cheese is placed in a cool cellar at twelve degrees for the rest of its maturing period. After four months, the first loaves are cut up and sold; they are at the "mild" stage of ripeness. The cheese is considered "matured" at eight months, and "fully matured" after one year. It is rarer to find Emmentaler with 24 or even 30 months ripening time on the market, in which case it is somewhat more bitter and has pronounced ripening crystals in the dough. Thanks to its rather mild flavour, Emmental is versatile and popular with young and old alike. It tastes good on every cheese platter and in every sandwich. In Switzerland, it is also often used in cooking; whether in cheese spaetzli, for gratinating casseroles or in a sausage and cheese salad, Emmental simply always goes well.

Mottet, Rudolf Emanuel Effinger
© Mauritius Images / Alamy Stock Photos / Achive PL
Mottet, Rudolf Emanuel Effinger

Profile of the Emmentaler

Type: Hard cheese made from raw cow's milk
Production area: In the Swiss cantons of Aargau, Bern, Glarus, Lucerne, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Zug, Zurich and Fribourg
Taste: Nutty, herbs, caramel. Over time, it develops a slight woody note.
Consistency: Relatively soft at first, becomes somewhat crumbly as it matures.
Weight of a loaf: 75 to 120 kg
Maturation time: 4 to 30 months

Related varieties

Hard cheese with many faces
Thanks to its origins, which are closely linked to the cheese-making culture of the Swiss Alps, Emmental is related to most Swiss hard cheeses, such as Gruyère and Sbrinz. It also served as inspiration for a number of other cheeses - for example, the Dutch cheese Leerdammer is said to combine the characteristics of the popular Emmental and Gouda cheeses. The holey "Swiss cheese", which is mainly available in the USA, is also modelled on Emmental. In Turkey, there is also "Kars Gravyer", which was named after Gruyère, but with its large holes is more similar to Emmental.

Emmental variants

In 2022, 101 cheese dairies in eleven Swiss cantons produced almost 15,000 tons of Emmentaler AOP. A large proportion of this, over 10,000 tons, was exported. There are countless versions of this popular cheese: if it is matured for four months, it is sold as "Mild", after eight months as "Reserve" and from twelve months as "Extra". Emmental cheese is also available cave-aged, made from organic or mountain milk, as well as a number of new creations and regional varieties.

Emmental cheese is not only found in Switzerland, it is also available in other countries, often even with its own designation of origin. In Germany, "Allgäuer Emmentaler" is made from raw milk and matured for at least three months. The "Bregenzerwälder Emmentaler" from Austria is similar, sometimes coming onto the market after just two months. France has the regional varieties "Emmental Français Est-Central" and "Emmental de Savoie".

Larissa Graf
Larissa Graf
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