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We all know what Swiss cheese is. An image probably comes to mind of the neatly pre-sliced cheese we buy in small packs from the grocery store characterized by its myriad of holes. It has a mild taste and the slices are good for making sandwiches. But do we know where it came from? Most non-cheese connoisseurs do not.
The concoction riddled with holes that we know as Swiss cheese was inspired by specific types of cheese that originated in…you guessed it…Switzerland. However, the cheese you buy in the grocery store is very different from the real, premium Swiss cheese, which is still available today, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg unless you are a purist and insist that the only real Swiss cheese is imported from Switzerland.
The “Swiss” cheese that was the original inspiration for what we now call Swiss cheese is called Emmental or Emmentaler. Emmentaler is so named because the particular process by which the cheese is made originated in the Emme Valley, in the Canton of Bern, Switzerland. The process involves certain natural bacteria consuming the lactic acid in the cheese and releasing carbon dioxide gas, which slowly forms the bubbles that create the perfectly round holes that characterize Swiss cheese. Cheese experts often refer to these holes as “eyes.”
This process that was born in the Emme Valley has inspired a large number of the cheeses we enjoy today. Emmentaler is now produced in other European countries like France, Finland and Germany as well as it’s native Switzerland. Jarlsberg from Norway, and Leerdammer and Maasdam from The Netherlands are all similar variations of the original “Swiss Cheese.” But the problem we have in North America is that importing food can be an expensive process, from transporting it under the proper conditions to the government inspection standards. That all adds to the price of the cheese we enjoy, making it a luxury product. But those on a budget can still enjoy delectable Swiss cheese.
The problem with the mass produced Swiss cheese we find in the grocery store is that the production process has lost its integrity in the name of high volume output. This is often debated, but generally the larger the eyes, the more pronounced the flavor of the cheese. The reason for this is that the conditions that provide the ideal flavor, longer aging at higher temperatures, are also the ideal conditions for the enzymes and bacteria to create larger eyes. This creates two problems with mass producers that are focused on turning a profit. The longer aging process slows production, and the larger eyes make it difficult to neatly slice the cheese on mechanical slicers, because the cheese comes apart. Both of these factors cost time and money, so Swiss cheese manufactured in North America is often less aged and flavorful than imported varieties.
So how can we enjoy good Swiss cheese without spending an arm and a leg? We buy it from a “cheese artist”, rather than a “cheese business.” During the wave of European immigration to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many immigrants from the canton of Bern, Switzerland, where the original Emmentaler was produced, settled in Northeastern Ohio in what is now Holmes County. Holmes County, OH is now also the largest Amish settlement in the world. The Swiss immigrants brought their cheese making traditions with them, and although production has been aided by some automation, the original process is still strictly adhered to. But the process is not the only element necessary to successfully produce incredible Swiss cheese. It is essential that the milk used in making the cheese comes from specific types of cows that graze in specific grasses. All of those elements are present in Holmes County Ohio, and the milk is provided by local Amish farmers who do not give their cows hormones or antibiotics or add preservatives to the milk. The result is a Swiss cheese that tastes as good, if not better than the original Emmentaler that is imported from Switzerland, at approximately 1/3 the price.
Shisler’s Cheese House, a specialty cheese retailer located in Northeastern Ohio, conducted a double-blind taste test pitting imported Swiss Emmentaler against locally produced Pearl Valley Swiss Cheese, a fourth generation owned and operated cheese maker from Holmes County, OH. Of all the customers surveyed, approximately 10% were undecided, 10% said they preferred the imported Emmentaler, 20% said they liked both equally, and 60% preferred the locally made Ohio Swiss cheese.
So if you are a chef who likes to include fine cheeses in your recipes, you entertain frequently, or are simply a cheese enthusiast with a taste for fine Swiss cheese, you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy imported cheese or sacrifice quality for affordability. All you have to do stop into one of the local cheese stores in Northeastern Ohio, or if that’s not an option you can order online from www.cheeshouse.com/ohio-swiss-cheese. They ship to all 50 states and Canada.