When Swiss Cheese is Really Swiss

Swiss CheeseWhen people ask for Swiss cheese in groceries, they look for cheese with holes in them. These holes seem to proclaim the identity of the cheese with such certainty people rarely ask if the Swiss cheese they are buying is really Swiss.

Swiss Cheese in North America

In North America, Swiss cheese is a generic name for white cheese with holes. This is actually a popular imitation of Emmenthaler (or Ementaler)  Ementhal (or Emental); both are medium-hard cheeses made in Switzerland. Their flavor is generally savory rather than sharp. American made Swiss cheese, on the other hand, has a mild, almost bland flavor.

As Cook’s Info puts it, Swiss Cheese is a North American generic imitation of Emmenthal, just as Jarlsberg is a Norwegian version of Emmenthal. In the UK, and in Europe, “Swiss Cheese” has no meaning as a specific cheese. It would be like saying “1 pound of French cheese” — people would ask you which French cheese?…”

The Holes in the Cheese

Ironically, these well-loved holes in cheese were once considered a defect. These holes are referred to by cheese artisans as “eyes”, and cheeses without these holes are called “blind”. During the late stage of production, the bacteria in the cheese release carbon dioxide gas. This results in pockets within the cheese, and these pockets create holes or “eyes”.

Bigger holes in cheese mean the cheese has gone through a longer fermentation period; this allows the bacteria a lot more time to produce air pockets. This is why cheeses with bigger holes usually have a more defined flavor. However, big-hole cheese is difficult to slice, and in 2000, the FDA ruled that the diameter of cheese “eyes” must stay within 3/8 and 3/16 of an inch.

The Real Swiss Cheeses

Most Swiss cheeses are named after the region where they are produced. For example, Ementhal (or Emental) cheese comes from Ementhal, a west central region in the canton of Berne. The same holds true for Appenzeller,  Gruyère, and host of other famous cheeses. Cheeses from Switzerland gives a straightforward list of the cheeses that are definitely of Swiss origin.

Hard cheeses. Three of the most famous hard cheeses from Switzerland are Sbrinz AOP, Emmentaler AOP, and Le Gruyère AOP. Made from raw milk, these are full-fat cheeses that go through a lengthy ripening process.

Semi-hard cheeses. Among Switzerland’s best-loved semi-hard cheeses are Raclette Suisse®, Walliser Raclette AOP, Appenzeller®, Tilsiter, Tête de Moine AOP, and Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP.

Soft cheeses. Swiss Brie, Swiss Camembert, and Tomme are three of the best examples of soft mould ripened cheese. Vacherin Mont-d’Or AOP, Limburger, Reblochon, and Münster are all smear soft cheeses.

What to Drink with your Swiss Cheese

Wine Enthusiast makes mention of some you-can’t-go-wrong combinations for white wine to go with some Swiss cheeses: It’s Champagne for Camembert, Chardonnay for Brie, and Sauvignon Blanc for Gruyère. World Food and WIne digresses from the usual white-wine-and-cheese route when it says, Gruyére and Emmental – pair with Shiraz, Northern Rhone reds, or Merlot. Riesling also works…

From World Food and Wine comes a piece of wisdom concerning the appropriate wine for Swiss cheeses. “…Whatever one’s leanings, all can agree that wine and cheese are the perfect running mates…”  This statement can provide the assurance that just by deciding to have cheese paired with wine you are already on to a very good thing.

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