Do the words... Swiss cheese... create a picture in your mind? I'll bet you might think of mountains or Alps, cows, holes and sandwiches! Well, there is a lot more to Swiss cheese than that.
Did you know that virtually all cheeses made in Switzerland are considered "mountain cheeses" and are made from raw cow's milk?
Rustic, full-flavored and totally consistent in high quality. There is no resemblance to the pre-cut, plastic-wrapped pseudo-Swiss cheese you find in the supermarket.
What does that mean? First, they are physically very large. For example, Emmentaler cheese is made in wheels the size of tractor tires, weighing 175-220 lbs, with a diameter of 44 inches! Mountain cheeses in Switzerland MUST be made from raw Alpine cow's milk, which lends a more assertive flavor and firmer texture to the cheeses (just as raw sheep's milk does for sheep's milk cheeses). These cheeses are aged a long time, so that they are firm, with a hard rind (and keep very well). The full flavor and texture of Mountain cheeses are primarily due to the unique terroir found in the high mountains/Alps of Switzerland - lots of sun, pure water, fresh air and lush pasturage - all are factors which strongly influence the cheese. Alpine milk has a much higher butterfat content than lowland milk.
Did you know that an Alp is any place on a mountain where people and animals settle and live during the short summer season?
So one mountain could actually contain several Alps! Each Alp has its own terroir or microclimate, unique to its hills, valleys and rivers. In the spring the cattle and the herders migrate up to the highest elevations - in late summer thru fall, the migration reverses. This twice yearly, seasonal migration is known as transhumance.
Cheesemaking is strictly regulated in Switzerland. This developed over the centuries, since cheesemaking began over 1,000 years ago. By the early 17th c. Swiss cheeses already enjoyed a wonderful reputation in neighboring countries (the firm cheeses travel well and so their export value grew). As demand grew, the supply needed to increase. The Sennen (the mountain people who made the cheese) realized the need for expansion, so they developed a cooperative system of labor and resources which then grew into a network of dairies and cheese factories, owned and strictly regulated by the overseeing cooperatives in each canton in Switzerland. This system continues today, with each region specializing in their own type of cheese. In fact no region is allowed to make a cheese other than those cheeses which are original to that region. Both the recipes and the production process are strictly controlled.
Another distinctive feature of Swiss-made cheese is the fact that they are not marketed by brands, like you find in France for example. But each cheese will be marked with an individual I.D. stamp and the wheels of the largest cheeses (Emmentaler and Gruyère) will have a stamp on the outer rind showing the trademark of the Switzerland Cheese Union. If you should see a Swiss cheese in the shop with some sort of brand on it ... you will know that it is not a true Alpine cheese and that it is made from pasteurized milk. It is these pasteurized versions which sometimes give the authentic Swiss cheese a so-so reputation or a lesser status which they don't deserve.
You can always be sure of the highest quality when you buy a true artisanal Swiss-made cheese. The Swiss are well known for their precision and their strict attention to detail and cleanliness. If a cheese shows some slight defect - the cheesemaker will throw it out rather than compromise the quality and his reputation! The Swiss don't cut corners!
There are 14 name-controlled Swiss cheeses. I will highlight nine special
Swiss Mountain Cheeses.
4. Tête de Moine
5. Hoch Ybrig
6. 3 Hard Mountain cheeses: Sbrinz, Spalen, Saanen
7. 4 Raclette cheeses: Bagnes, Conches, Gomser, Orsières
8. Stanser Fladä
9. Vacherin Fribourgeois