10 Facts About Emmentaler: A Classic Swiss Cheese

How well do you know one of Switzerland’s most famous cheeses with its trademark holes? The versatile Emmentaler with its faint yellow color has a slight nutty flavor. In 2006, it received an appellation d’origine protégée designation (AOP, protected designation of origin) to help ensure the quality and the tradition of cheese with the Emmentaler name. Perhaps it’s your favorite Swiss cheese? Test your knowledge with my 10 facts below…

Inside the Stöckli at the Emmentaler Schaukäserei in Affoltern.

1. Emmentaler cheese originated in the Swiss canton of Bern. Its name comes from the Emme valley (“tal”) where cheesemakers first started producing it hundreds of years ago – sources point back as early as the 13th century. Today, the AOP designation extends beyond the borders of Switzerland’s Emmental region. Cheesemakers can produce Emmentaler AOP in the cantons of Aargau, Bern (except the administrative district of Moutier), Glarus, Luzern, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Zug, Zurich and the Lake and Sense districts in the canton of Fribourg.

The historic Stöckli, built in 1741, at the Emmentaler Schaukäserei.

2. A hard cheese made from unpasteurized whole cow’s milk, Emmentaler has the unofficial nickname as the “the king of cheese” because a wheel weighs between about 75 and 120 kilograms (165 to 265 pounds). You need approximately 12 liters of milk to make 1 kilogram of Emmentaler cheese. Its large size resulted from the fact that export duties during the 19th century were determined by the number of wheels of cheese, not by their total weight.

Emmentaler AOP at the Emmentaler Schaukäserei.

3. To make Emmentaler, cheesemakers use raw milk from cows that have only been fed grass or hay. Cheesemaking in the Emmental started in the alpine pastures, but moved down into the valley during the 19th century. The town of Kiesen, near Thun in the canton of Bern, became home to the first large-scale Emmentaler cheese dairy in 1815. As a result, the production of this cheese was not only limited to the summer months – it could be made throughout the year, a practice that continues today.

Dairy cows at the farm of Roland Ryser and his family in the Emmental.

4. Emmentaler AOP comes in different varieties. For example, the classic Emmentaler ages for at least four months, and the Réserve ages for at least eight months. You will also find a cave-aged Emmentaler, which matures for a period of 12 months, six of which occur in a stone cellar. As a result, the rind of this cave-aged cheese has a dark brown to black color. The Crown Emmentaler ages for a period of at least 14 months, with 11 of these months spent in a humid cellar. Additional Emmentaler cheese varieties include an organic version and a cheese dedicated to the Swiss novelist, Jeremias Gotthelf. In general, the longer the period of maturation, the deeper the flavor and the darker the rind.

5. The American version of Emmentaler is sold as “Swiss cheese.” If you order a “ham and Swiss” sandwich, for example, you will get slices of a cheese with holes, modeled after the Swiss Emmentaler. Other cheese products outside of Switzerland may bear either the Emmental or Emmentaler name, but only those marked with the AOP label should be recognized as the real thing.

6. You can learn about Emmentaler AOP at the Emmentaler Schaukäserei. Founded in 1985, the Emmentaler show dairy in Affoltern gives you a firsthand look at how this well-known Swiss cheese is made. With approximately 300,000 visitors each year, this site includes both a historic and modern perspective on Emmentaler. It has a restaurant that serves cheese specialties and other regional dishes, as well as a shop where you can purchase cheese and other local food products to take home. In 2018, the show dairy opened the new Königsweg (King’s Way), an audiovisual tour given in German, French and English (cost: adults, CHF 15; children 12-17 years old, CHF 8; and children 11 and under are free).

Fresh bread and Emmentaler AOP at the Emmentaler Schaukäserei restaurant.

7. Each wheel of Emmentaler AOP receives a red and white label that becomes part of the rind. The cheese also has numbers attached to it that identify the date of production and the cheesemaker. Some versions have a special label, such as the Gotthelf Emmentaler AOP. Its label has a design based on the Swiss art of paper cutting (Scherenscnitt) that was inspired by the book, Die Käserei in der Vehfreude (The Dairy in Vehfreude) by Gotthelf, first published in 1850.

Showing us the classic red and white labels at the Emmentaler Schaukäserei.

8. The holes in Emmentaler cheese develop during the fermentation process. These holes, also referred to as “eyes,” comes from bacteria – such as propionic acid or lactic acid – which causes bubbles of carbon dioxide to form and become trapped. During the last 10-15 years, a reported decline in the number of holes led researchers to hypothesize that more sterile conditions somehow contributed to this change. To better understand this trend, Agroscope – the Swiss federal center for agriculture research, tested its theory that hay particles in the milk triggered the development of these holes. In 2015, this center reported that the “riddle of hole formation” had been solved, as it found the combination of hay particles and bacteria as the primary trigger for the creation to those all-important empty spaces in the Emmentaler cheese.

Young Emmentaler gets wrapped with a cloth girdle to keep the sides from bulging out.

9. Emmentaler AOP ranks third among the most produced cheeses in Switzerland, preceded only by Gruyère AOP and mozzarella. The Rapport Agricole 2018 from the Federal Office of Agriculture indicates that Switzerland produced nearly 18,500 tons of Emmentaler AOP in 2017.

10. You can enjoy Emmentaler AOP in a variety of ways. Matthias Sempach, a champion Swiss wrestler who has earned the Schwingerkönig title and serves as a spokesperson for Emmentaler AOP, told me that he likes to have Emmentaler for an afternoon snack. You can also use it in fondue, croûte au fromage (a Swiss-style open-faced grilled cheese sandwich) and in many other Swiss dishes. Check out the Emmentaler AOP website for some more recipe suggestions.

Sources:

Please note: I visited the Emmentaler Schaukäserei as a guest of Compresso AG and Emmentaler Switzerland. As always, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are purely my own.

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