It was a joke at the Swiss grocery store. Americans would come in and ask for Swiss cheese, and the lady behind the counter would laughingly say, “It’s all Swiss!”
It’s a tradition much older than Switzerland, a collection of cantons called the Swiss Confederation, or Confederation Helvetica, seen as CH on the white oval stickers with black letters that formerly were used only for European countries until unoriginal people misappropriated the design rather than thinking of their own. Swiss farmers were making the cheese with the holes, called Emmenthaler after the Emme River valley, when the Romans came to town, and the conquering Italians called it Caseus Helveticus, or Swiss cheese.
In his impressive book “The World of Cheese,” Evan Jones, who traveled around Europe and acquired an amazing amount of knowledge about cheese, said that people in the Emme valley say, “Anybody can make the holes … only Switzerland can make the flavor.” Jones says that no Swiss cheese equals the flavor of the original Emmenthaler, which takes its flavor from the Alpine climate, where Swiss cows graze on the grass and flowers of the high Alpine meadows. Aging is essential to the proper development and taste of Emmenthaler, and Jones belittles the two-month-old American versions that often are sliced and packaged in vacuum-sealed envelopes for sale in mass-oriented retail markets where blandness of all kinds prevails.
He is also vocal about baby Swiss: “In Pennsylvania, Amish farmers make a Baby Swiss, rubbery in texture, that is considered by some to be highly flavored.”
Jones’ comments remind me of what I’ve read about beer in this country. Americans, because they know no different, settle for bland imitations of the original flavorful European culinary creations that were products of necessity (cheese keeps longer than milk; beer keeps longer than bread) and that came to be part of and associated with the culture of their respective regions.
Americans also eat a lot of processed cheese food, which substitutes artificial additives for the natural aging process and its attendant bacteria that give cheese its texture and taste. Cheese in America is pasteurized, by law, making it safe but eliminating a richness that I so far have only read about. (My brother-in-law jokes that when he retires he’s going to become a cheese smuggler.) People who have raised families on goat’s milk say the milk owes its unusual flavor to lack of pasteurization, something Americans are unaccustomed to, rather than the milk being from a goat. People who think Budweiser is a pilsener beer (the original, Pilsner Urquell, added the “Urquell” because so many pale imitations were being made) or don’t know the flavor of a true German pretzel (a hot pretzel at Epcot Center pretty much ruined my taste for most other pretzels), also think that processed cheese is cheese. Processed cheese can taste good, but it doesn’t compare to the flavor and aroma of an Emmenthaler cut fresh from a 200-pound wheel.
We’re lucky that we live close to Amish country and the fine Swiss cheeses from Holmes and Wayne counties. I’ve never traveled to Europe, so I cant compare the true Emmenthaler to Ohio Swiss, but Guggisberg fresh from a wheel is a favorite treat.
Temperature, as with beer, is also a neglected and little-known influence of flavor. My grandfather kept his Swiss cheese in white paper on the counter, and from him I learned that cheese tastes best just below room temperature. Our modern basements and climate-controlled houses have eliminated cool cellars that favored good food storage and that were ideal storage places for cheese and beer.
A properly aged and stored cheese, served at the proper temperature, makes, for the tyrophile, from the Greek word tyros for cheese, guten essen — good eating.
This is the cheese kettle, part of an automated cheesemaking display at the Alpine Hills Museum.