The Meanderthals

A cultural experience in the Swiss countryside.

Ever had a romantic notion about making cheese? One where Heidi yodels from a mountain-top while Klaus stirs the milk, humming Edelweiss as he carefully wraps each tenderly made wheel in cheesecloth.

Well, you can forget it. Cheese-making ain’t for the faint-hearted. And nobody’s yodeling anything.

Today, at the Emmental Show Dairy, we saw first-hand some of the processes involved in churning out some of Switzerland’s most famous cheese. We opted not to take the tour for two reasons: 1. The viewing platform above the factory showed us everything, and 2. I was accompanied by an experienced cheesemaker: my husband.

For those who don’t know, Skip had a brief stint as a cheesemaker when we first moved to England. He came home the first day with bruises on both arms from hefting heavy cheese molds. The second day he couldn’t move after wrenching his back. Not an occupation he chose to continue but it taught him a lot about making cheese. Primarily, most of the day is spent cleaning. Cleaning the vats, the molds, the floor, the equipment. With water, and chemicals, and more water. As we saw at the Emmental dairy today.

The cheese maker (clad all in white with hairnet and heavy Wellington boots) crisscrossed the floor, switching on paddles which stirred enormous vats of milk, then heating it to the required temperature, adding rennet, discarding whey which accumulated on the surface, and filling the huge steel molds. Time and time again. All day long. As well as hauling in huge cans of milk and carrying them across the floor. How he managed to keep up this pace was astounding, particularly since he wasn’t a young man (or maybe the hard work aged him more than it aged his cheese).

A few technical details about the cheese: Emmental is made from cow’s milk using thermophilic cultures. Three types of bacteria are needed to prepare the cheese, and additional cultures (Propionibacterium shermanii) produce holes and eyes during ripening. Before draining, the curd is pressed under whey to eliminate trapped air and liquid, with a view to obtain smooth texture.

Historically, the holes were a sign of imperfection so cheese makers would try to avoid them. Nowadays, eye formation is valued as a sign of maturation and quality.

Nicknamed the King of Cheeses in Switzerland, the famous cheese owes its name to the valley of the River Emme in the Bern canton where cheese production can be traced back to the 13th century. Nowadays, Emmentaler is produced in approximately 110 village creameries from fresh, untreated milk, sourced from cows who eat grass and hay and are never fed any silage feed. Additives and genetically modified ingredients are strictly forbidden, and about 12 litres of milk are required to make one kilogram of cheese.

The cheese is available at various levels of maturity to suit different tastes and purposes: from the mild, nutty classic (matured for at least four months) to the extremely fruity “Réserve” (matured for at least eight months) to the full-flavoured “cave-matured” (matured for at least 12 months) and the unique “original taste” matured Emmentaler AOP (matured for at least 12 months). We bought a sampler kit of seven types, and tried them all.

We also learned one can spend a night in a “living cheese barrel”. An experience yet to be had!

However, disaster struck earlier this year when the EU Court ruled that the term Emmentaler refers to a type of cheese familiar in German-speaking countries as opposed to a specific region in Switzerland.

Seems that everything has its holes.

Sampling cheese – all part of a day’s work.

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