If you're anything like me, you grew up understanding Swiss cheese to mean a plastic block full of holes, to be sliced at the deli counter alongside that quarter pound of ham. If you're really like me, you kind of hated Swiss cheese, because it had a sweet, oddly nutty flavor, like milk boiled too long in a pot.
But that was then. Now, fresh off spending two weeks in Switzerland, Austria, and southern Germany (Bavaria), I've shed the last vestiges of my childhood misconceptions. The cheese-making scene here is just as innovative as in the States, with countless young makers ditching the traditional, regional cheeses (Emmenthaler and Appenzeller most notably) to invent new recipes that riff on the old school basics. That said, they respect, protect, and celebrate their traditions, too. It's truly the best of both worlds.
While E.U. borders now designate Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as separate countries, their shared cheese history means cheese from these regions have more in common with each other than, say southern (Bavarian) Germany and northern Germany. Today, Switzerland keeps itself politically and economically separate from its neighbors, but for hundreds of years its cheese was mobile, with recipes and tradition moving fluidly across borders.
The three regions intersect at Lake Constance, where the dairy of choice is cow, particularly the Brown Swiss breed. These cows have smaller, sturdier bodies uniquely equipped for walking and pasture consumption. For thousands of years animals have been led from the town valleys to the mountain alps from June through September, so the lower altitude lands may be used for hay production to feed animals during prolonged winters. This remains the case today.
In the world of alpine cheese, goat and sheep cheeses are are, and most cheeses are produced from raw milk (or thermalized milk, which is a gentler form of pasteurization not recognized by the U.S. FDA, and so considered raw milk in the States). The majority of cows are fed grass and hay without any silage (fermented hay), and the recipes are derived from a time when cheese was a storage vehicle for milk—meant to last poor, rural people through long and bitter winters.
The inspiration for my childhood deli disappointment is the western Swiss cheese Emmenthaler, whose production originated in the canton of Bern. Historically produced in enormous (160 pound) wheels, the cheese's distinctively sweet flavor and gaping holes (or "eyes") are the result of long, warm cave ripening that activates the bacterial culture proprionibacterium freudenreichii or shermanii, which consume lactic acid and produce the gas carbon dioxide. The cheese's pliable texture means escaping gas forms round holes instead of cracks or fissures.
While the name "Emmenthaler Switzerland" is protected in Switzerland, the E.U. does not recognize "Emmenthaler" as a protected designation of origin (PDO) name, so block cheese with holes can be made anywhere (and is, in great quantity, in Austria, Germany, and Finland, not to mention the U.S.) and called Emmenthaler. Many cheese makers got their start producing Emmenthaler, but over the past 30 years demand for the cheese has declined, and in the absence of government subsidies, it stopped being financially viable. So they started making other cheeses.
Gruyere AOP (the "AOP" means the cheese is name protected in Switzerland but also recognized by the E.U. as a PDO) is produced communally in five cantons of western Switzerland. Dairy farmers contract with a local dairy (by law, within 18 kilometers) and deliver their milk twice a day, 365 days a year. There are 170 dairies in villages and 53 on alps. What's the difference? Among many others, village dairies produce year-round, while alp dairies make cheese from June through September, weather permitting. Dairies age the cheese for three months before transporting it to a maturation facility where it'll spend another two to 13 months. While the cheese's production is strictly regulated, a complex system of financial checks and balances between the milk maker, cheese maker, and cheese ager ensure that respect for tradition and high-quality products continue on in much the same way they have since the 1100's.
To the east, in the areas around Appenzell, the cheese Appenzeller is made following a similar recipe, but is produced in much smaller wheels. It tends to be bendier (read: potentially gummy) than Gruyere, with a milder, milky flavor. Unlike Gruyere, Appenzeller has its own regulating body, but it isn't an AOP or PDO cheese. 53 dairies make their versions of Appenzeller and send wheels off to be aged by aging facilities responsible for its sale. The demand for the cheese, especially abroad, has steadily declined, leading individual makers to invent their own recipes.
One notable newcomer is Scharfe Maxx, produced by Kaserei Studer in the Thurgau canton, which was invented by third generation cheese maker Daniel Studer in 1999 who, faced with an excess of milk, needed to diversify his line. Adding cream to full fat cow milk and producing his starter culture in-house from skimmed milk yielded an entirely new cheese, though the recipe steps resembled one for Appenzeller. The texture is like sun-softened toffee, the flavor bouillon-savory cut with a spill of cream.
Walter Rass of Kaserei Tufertschwil in the canton of St. Gallen arrived at a similar conclusion in 2001 after making Appenzeller for 27 years, 16 of which led to awards as a Top 10 quality producer. This was a key stepping stone to the invention of his Challerhocker, made from full fat milk and aged eight to eleven months rather than Appenzeller's base of six. His starter is housemade from his wife's yogurt. His Challerhocker is intensely creamy yet firm, with a clear undercurrent of garlic and caramelized onion. It was more food than cheese.
Another notable innovator to look for is Kaserie Stofel, one of a very few cheesemakers to play around with soft cheeses. Most luckily for the U.S. is the pillowy washed rind Forsterkase, bound in spruce bark and an inspiration to the American gem Winnimere from the Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm.
While these cheeses are rare, most are available nationwide at Whole Foods, or by mail order from Cowgirl Creamery in California, DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia, Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge, MA), and Murray's Cheese in New York City. They are revelatory and worth seeking out—a world away from the Swiss in the deli case.