Why this Swiss giant needs your attention
People like to throw around superlatives when talking about the colossus of curd clout, that holey wheel so familiar, it has its own emoji—Emmentaler. It’s been called the world’s largest cheese, Switzerland’s most popular and one of the U.S.’s most imported. And according to Alfred Rufer, vice director of the Emmentaler Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP), it’s also the most copied.
In the last 10 years, annual production of Emmentaler AOP has declined from 31,000 metric tons to 18,500, which Rufer attributes largely to the ubiquity of imitators going by the familiar moniker “Swiss cheese.” Often sold in blocks at lower prices, these riffs on the style impact the livelihood of those making the genuine article. But what is that, exactly? And how can it be preserved?
What’s in a Name
Easily the most iconic thing out of Switzerland after chocolate and political neutrality, Emmentaler hails from the Emme River Valley, which is precisely what its name implies. “Tal” is the German word for valley—formerly “thal” before spelling reforms in 1902 nixed the “h.” “Emmental” refers to the valley, whereas “Emmentaler” means something from there.
The mild, nutty deli-counter mainstay dates back to the 13th century, when inhabitants of the relatively arable Swiss Plateau found their cows producing more milk than they could drink. With refrigeration centuries away, they kept milk from spoiling by turning it into cheese. This took place in the mountains, with the lowlands reserved for crops, but that all changed in the 1800s when the railroads came. Farmers who’d grown their own grain now had it freighted in, which meant their cattle could come down from the mountains—but it also meant they needed a new gig.
“You see a direct correlation between railroads being built and dairies booming,” says Joe Salonia, sales representative for Emmentaler AOP distributor Gourmino. “As soon as the railroads were bringing in the grains, the Swiss started ordering takeout and building dairies.” The first lowland dairy was built in 1815 by enterprising economist Rudolf Emanual Effinger, and by the end of the 1800s, 600 more had joined him. During that time, the wheels expanded—formerly around 80 pounds; they’re now around 200. Some attribute their massive size to the cows’ productivity, while others paint a shrewder picture. “Cheesemakers used to be taxed on each individual wheel they made,” says Allison Lacey, brand manager for Switzerland’s largest Emmentaler distributor, Emmi Roth, which has U.S. offices in Fitchburg, WI. “So they got cute and just made really big wheels!”
A union protected cheesemakers for most of the 20th century, but it was dissolved amid corruption in the mid-1990s and replaced by the AOP in 2000. In this model, dairy farmer cooperatives co-own a dairy and pay the cheesemaker to turn their milk into profit. Distributors like Emmi and Gourmino buy the cheese at a price set by the AOP, and dairies pay the farmers for the milk they bring in, in an impressive yet vulnerable ecosystem.
AOP rules begin with the cows, which tend to be Simmental or Holstein. To make Emmentaler AOP, the cows can only eat hay or grasses—never silage—on farms no further than 20 kilometers from the cheesemaking facility. This serves a scientific purpose as well as an environmental one. “When fat gets broken up by a jostling long car ride, it results in a bitter cheese,” says Salonia.
That milk must arrive raw and daily, and cheesemakers must innocculate it with cultures (among them propionibacterium freudenreichii, responsible for the cheese’s characteristic holes) and heat it gently in a copper vat right away. The curd is then cut with a cheese harp and strained, cooked again, then fully drained in molds. Cheesemakers dunk those molded wheels in a brine bath, then transfer them to a room where muggy balm enables propionic bacteria to convert lactic acid into carbon dioxide. Blocked from escaping by the salty crust, the gas bubbles cherry-sized holes into the paste.
The wheels are wiped and transferred to a cooler cellar, where they’re turned and washed regularly for a minimum of four months. Affineurs monitor them, hitting the wheels with wooden mallets to listen for mysterious auditory cues of uniform hole distribution. Finished products are graded by the AOP on a 20-point scale, and anything less than perfect is relegated to the shredder, or worse, pig feed. Anything with a score below 17 is “not intended for human consumption under any circumstances,” according to the AOP.
The cheesemaking process must happen within cantons Argau; Bern; Frieburg; Glarus; Lucerne; Schwyz; Solothurn; St. Gallen; Thurgau; Zug; or Zurich. Even if all of these steps were followed by a cheesemaker outside of this region, it could still not be called Emmentaler AOP.
Despite their opportunistic reputation, some foreign Emmentaler-makers are as guarded about their process as the Swiss. Bavaria makes a protected Allgauer Emmentaler, while France protects their Emmental de Savoie and Est-Central Emmental. They follow rules similar to the Emmentaler AOP, and share similar origin stories involving mountains, valleys and village dairies.
“We totally disagree with the so-called imitation of Swiss cheese,” says Xavier Billoir, quality manager of French cheesemaker Entremont. “Emmental has been produced for very long by several countries dating back to approximately the same period for Switzerland, Alpen France and south Germany.” As Billoir sees it, it is a country’s choice whether or not to produce an industrial and protected variety of a cheese, and Switzerland has merely chosen to focus on protected.
These efforts don’t go unnoticed by the Emmentaler AOP. In 2015, they sued an Italian cheesemaker for using the name, and the court decided in the AOP’s favor, fining the Italians 1.5M€ in damages for using the word “Swiss” in their labeling, and also for using a chemical additive. The ruling stated that even if people outside of Switzerland are allowed to make Emmentaler, they still have to make it the right way.
“One could say copying is the best form of compliment, but there needs to be a mutual understanding that these domestic innovations should not be called Emmentaler,” says Lacey, of Emmi Roth. These compliments come from further abroad than Europe, though, with some in South America and even in the States. Early Swiss immigrants to the U.S. settled in Green County, WI—an area bearing a “Little Switzerland” sobriquet—and started making Emmentaler.
“Those immigrants came over here to farm, and our land is very similar, we have a great limestone base here,” says cheesemaker Bruce Workman, who is the last man making Emmentaler in Green County and perhaps the only one attempting it in America. According to Workman, the region had nearly 200 factories making the cheese in the early 20th century, but fell victim to the same forces hitting Switzerland. “In the late 60s, early 70s, everybody converted from big wheel Swiss to the block because everybody wanted a sandwich slice.”
Workman’s dairy, Edelweiss Creamery, adheres to rules similar to the AOP for his grass-based Emmentaler—no silage, raw milk from farms within a 20-mile radius, even copper pots that his former employer (Roth Käse, who merged with Emmi AG in 2010 to form Emmi Roth) helped him source from Switzerland. He’s dedicated to preserving Green County’s heritage, but had to cut back production when he started seeing similar cheeses on the market for much less money.
“Customers do ask for [Emmentaler],” says Lila Dobbs, the general manager of Brooklyn cheese shop Foster Sundry. “But they tend to balk at an Emmentaler priced at $25 per pound.”
The Local Economy
To respond to diminished demand, the AOP stabilizes prices by imposing production limits on its cheesemakers. Luckily for the consumer, these are based on quality. “If you perform better, you get a higher allowance of production,” says Salonia. “So everybody’s trying to constantly improve.”
At the Heidbuhl Dairy in the Swiss village of Eggiwill, cheesemaker Adrian Vogel couldn’t hide his dejection when I visited in 2016. “The AOP tells me I can only make 54 percent of production capacity,” he says, gesturing towards a vat lying fallow in his facility. “I could make eight wheels a day, but only make five right now.” When production is curbed, he pays farmers 58 cents per liter for milk going towards Emmentaler, and 50 cents for the rest; when producing at capacity, Vogel offers 70 cents per liter. Two of the farmers dropping off milk that day said they’d taken second jobs, but that isn’t an option for a cheesemaker.
“We work every day, because the cows give milk every day,” says Dominik Wanner of Dorfchäsi Melchnau, another Emmentaler AOP dairy. “As long as the farmers can’t turn off the cows like a computer over the weekend, it will stay like that.” Wanner’s dairy takes in milk from a 175-year-old cooperative, where twice-daily deliveries amount to 5 million kilograms of milk each year. From that, Wanner produces 10 wheels of Emmentaler AOP per day. Excess milk goes into cream, butter, yogurt, quark and flavored milk; Vogel’s excess goes into products for his dairy store.
Because one cannot subsist on quark alone, there is a movement underway to add interest where it’s waning and value where farmers desperately need it, by way of specialty aging programs and information campaigns.
“The tough part is educating customers on the history and context of Emmentaler,” says Dobbs, in a sentiment echoed by many players in the Emmentaler scene. Workman says that in his experience, people assume they don’t like Emmentaler because they’ve only tasted bland baby Swiss, often rubbery from being cured in a plastic bag. Part of adding value is merely teaching people how it should taste.
For Salonia, who developed a Save The Emmentaler program at Gourmino, people need to understand the cheese, not just tolerate it. Part of his push has been bringing Gourmino’s Slow-Food-certified Gotthelf Emmentaler to shops. Made by husband and wife duo Bernard Meier and Marlies Zaugg at their Hüpfenboden mountain dairy, the wheels are ripened to fudgy crystalline perfection up to 24 months at Gourmino’s Langnau cellar. They produce two wheels per day with the milk of 12 nearby farms, inoculating the milk with a “mother” culture made from whey drawn off previous batches of cheese. This keeps the flavors of the Emme valley—wildflowers, cooked leeks, sweet cream—in every wheel.
Gourmino keeps another traditional Emmentaler recipe alive, as well—Rahmtaler, dating from a 16th-century phase of limited butter production due to surplus that caused cheesemakers to stop skimming and craft rich, full-fat wheels instead. When the surplus ended, the practice continued by way of skimming the cream off evening milk and adding it to morning deliveries, but it hasn’t spread far beyond Switzerland.
“It feels like we’re doing meaningful work,” says Salonia. To draw in people put off by large wheels, Gourmino offers their cheeses in 1/12 wheels; they also include illustrations of customary wheel breakdown techniques with every wheel.
Emmi Roth is also leaning into aging to imbue their wheels with intrigue, leaving some in their 22-million-year-old sandstone Kaltbach caves for a year. A river runs through these labyrinthine alcoves, affecting a 96 percent humidity. The mineral-rich air turns Emmentaler’s natural rind into a shimmering black patina of ancient flora, and the interior takes on a woodsy and sumptuous brown butter profile lit up with the spice of fresh-cut grass and snappy spring onion.
At the Emmentaler AOP show dairy, varieties include the five-month mild, nine-month Eidgenoss, 14-month Surchoix, 24-month Le Baron d’Emmentaler and 30-month Le Roi d’Emmentaler. As the age increases, notes of cracked pepper, caramelized nuts and vanilla intensify; the wheels are as sharp and crystallized as a Gruyère, yet with that unique propionic taste intact.
But while Emmentaler of the extra-aged sort can shine beside simple pairings like green grapes, candied walnuts and Swiss white wine, younger wheels are also capable of stretching beyond the humble sandwich slice. They’re perfect for grating atop eggs, pasta or salads and excel in Swiss classics like rösti potatoes, spaetzle or, of course, fondue.
EASY CHEESE FONDUE
Recipe courtesy of Emmi Roth
Active time: 15 minutes Cook time: 15 minutes Total time: 30 minutes
6 oz (2 cups) Emmi Emmentaler® AOP Cheese, grated
6 oz (2 cups) Emmi Le Gruyère® AOP Cheese, grated
2 Tbsp cornstarch
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper (white pepper may be substituted, see notes)
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp chardonnay or similar dry white wine (keep more on hand)
2 tsp lemon juice
• Good quality bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
• Soft pretzels, cut into bite-sized pieces
• Apple and/or pear slices
• Cherry tomatoes
• Broccoli and/or cauliflower (raw or blanched)
• Roasted fingerling potatoes
• Roasted mushrooms
• Assorted meats (seared steak, cubed ham, kielbasa slices)
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the Emmentaler, Gruyére, cornstarch, nutmeg and pepper.
Break the garlic in half or lightly smash it to expose some of the oils. Rub the clove along the inside of the fondue pot. (You can either discard the clove at this point or leave it in the pot until right before serving for a more assertive garlic flavor).
Add the wine and lemon juice to the pot and turn on medium heat.
Once the liquid is simmering, 4-5 minutes, adjust the heat to low and begin adding handfuls of the cheese mixture while stirring. Continue stirring until the cheese is completely melted and smooth, around 8-10 minutes. Remove the garlic clove.
Enjoy with assorted dippers immediately. Maintain the low heat setting and stir frequently with the skewered dippers or a spoon to keep the cheese from separating or sticking to the bottom of the pot. If the fondue ever becomes too thick, stir in an additional 1/2 – 1 Tbsp of wine as needed.
Note: Black pepper creates a speckled appearance in the cheese fondue. For a fondue that’s completely uniform in color, you can substitute white pepper.
Herbed Emmentaler Chicken & Rice
Recipe courtesy of Emmi Roth
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 to 40 minutes
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 6 oz container plain Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
2 tsp minced fresh rosemary
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp garlic powder
2 lbs chicken breasts (about 4 large breasts)
2 cups shredded Emmi Emmentaler cheese
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 3/4 cup long grain white rice
1 1/2 cup diced sweet potato
1 cup diced onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 Tbsp minced rosemary
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
Hefty pinch of salt & pepper
Additional fresh rosemary & thyme, for garnish
In a small bowl, whisk together Greek yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper.
Pour into a gallon-size sealable bag and add chicken breasts.
Squeeze all the air out of the bag and seal. Massage bag until chicken is well-coated in Greek yogurt mixture.
Let chicken marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour, ideally 3 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
In a 9×13-inch baking dish, add broth, rice, sweet potato, onion, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Whisk to mix.
Place dish in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
Remove from oven, and add chicken atop the dish. Scoop any remaining Greek yogurt mixture out of the bag and spread on chicken.
Top chicken breasts with shredded Emmentaler cheese.
Return baking dish to the oven, and bake an additional 30 minutes or until rice has absorbed nearly all the liquid and is cooked through.
Switch oven to broil set on high. Brown the chicken and rice until bubbling and golden.
Remove dish from the oven, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Rice will continue to cook through. 12. Garnish with additional fresh herbs, if desired. Serve immediately.