Friday, September 12, 2014

Emmental, the original Swiss cheese

It's hard to imagine a drawing of cheese that does not involve a few holes.

While Swiss cheese has become a generic term, there are actually several different tasty types of Switzerland-made cheese that deserve your attention.

Emmental (EM-mawn-tall) is one of the world's classic cheeses. It's the Swiss cheese that all other Swiss cheeses are patterned after.

Emmental cheese (also called Emmentaler or Emmenthal) can trace its history back to the 13th century when it was first made in the Emme Valley, which is west of Lake Constance. Today Emmental is made in many parts of Switzerland.

Herds of cows, particularly the Brown Swiss breed, were lead from pastures in the valleys up to alpine meadows during the summer months. The cowherds would start near the pasture in the spring and work their way up the mountain as the snow melted. This let the cows eat fresh grass while the valley pastures grew hay for the cows to eat during winter.

This relatively short grazing season in the mountains means a short milking season, so making cheese in alpine meadows was a way to store this milk. The wildflowers and grass of the alpine meadows are a factor in the flavor of this cheese.

Chalets were built at various points along the path so that cheese could be made without having to haul the milk down the valley, and the wheels were made very large, maybe a meter in diameter, so that it would keep better.

How Emmental is made

Emmental is made from unpasteurized, partially skimmed milk from cow's that are only fed grass and hay. These cows are not allowed to be fed silage, a method of storing grass that involves fermentation. Modern production of Emmental is year round and during winter, when the cows are fed hay, the milk is a paler yellow and the cheeses are often smaller.

Salt is heavy to haul up a mountain, so salt is used sparingly and heat and pressure are used to remove moisture from the curds. The curds are cut into tiny pieces and heated in a vat to expel whey before they pressed into a mold.

Emmental is made in very large , flat sided wheels that can weigh up to 200 pounds. The rind is thin, hard, and brownish yellow. The interior is pale yellow-ivory and will be pock-marked with holes.

The holes in Swiss cheese are called “eyes,” and they are formed by one of the three types of bacteria used to make Emmenthal. Two of the bacteria create lactic acid, which is consumed by the third type of bacteria, Propionibacterium shermanii. In addition to producing compounds that flavor the cheese, P. shermani also releases carbon dioxide which causes bubbles that become the eyes. Emmenthal eyes are large, about the size of cherries and walnuts.

Historically, these eyes were seen as an imperfection and cheesemakers would try to remove them by continued pressing of the cheese. Now the large eyes have become a visual trademark of Emmental.

Emmental is different than Swiss cheese from the deli.

American Swiss cheese has water added to create a milder flavored product for the American palate. Believe it or not, the size of the holes is regulated so that the cheese does not cause problems with deli slicers. Those rectangular bricks of deli swiss cheese lack the flavor and richness of Emmental because they are only aged for four months - half of the time it takes Emmental to mature. Jarlsberg is also a milder version of Emmental, but made in Norway.

Aging Emmental

The rind is marked with a label and a dairy number, then the wheel is aged for 6 to 18 months. After 8 months the cheese is mature, and after 12 months it is fully mature. After 8 months the cheese is aged in a damp cellar and the rind may darken. Avoid any cheese if the rind has turned grey.

Emmental will change your mind about Swiss cheese.

The cooking and pressing of the curds, and the minimal use of salt, yields a cheese that is pliable and tastes slightly nutty. The cheese is smooth and dense, with sweet, nutty, fruity, and some brown butter flavors. When you taste Emmental, you should be able to get a sense of the meadow flowers and fresh grass. 

Emmental and Gruyère are the cheeses used to make a classic Swiss fondue.

Gruyère has a deeper, more complex flavor than Emmental because it is made with whole cow’s milk (not skimmed) and is aged longer. Gruyère has no holes.

If you are going to make a fondue, shred your cheese rather than cube it before melting it. It will be easier to shred if the cheese is cold. Melt the cheese soon after shredding it, as Emmental tends to dry out quickly, and melt it over low heat, as high heat may turn your cheese rubbery.

Wine & Beer Pairing

For a wine paring, I love Chasselas with Emmental. Chasselas is a crisp white wine from Switzerland with plenty of acidity to cut through the cheese between bites. Chasselas is a little wine-geeky and may be hard to find, so if you can't find it, don't worry! Try pairing Emmental with Riesling or Viognier, which pair well for totally different reasons. 

Riesling, either dry or off-dry, has a freshness and crispness that works well with this cheese. I love Reisling from Washington state. I also like German Reisling, but in this case I'd look for one that is relatively young, as aged German Reisling develops flavors that don't match as well with the fresh alpine meadow aspect of Emmental.

Viognier, doesn't have the same crispness that Riesling does, but it has aromas will bring out the alpine meadow aspect of the cheese. This is the same reason that hard cider will also pair well with Emmental.
Are you a beer drinker? The clove aromas of a German style hefeweizen will be a nice counterpoint to the nutty flavors of the cheese. Try Emmental with a Bock or Oktoberfest Beer. The maltiness of the beer will also play off of the cheese's nuttiness.

Taste Emmental cheese along with Amontillado sherry. No foolin'! The nuttiness of the sherry mirrors the nuttiness of the cheese. Now try that sherry with some almonds and olives. You've seen the light, haven't you? Good! My work here is done.

Enjoy tasting one of the cheese world's classics.

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