Switzerland has a solid proof of how fantastic Swiss cheese is! Swiss Gruyère won World Cheese Championship contest in 2020! Michel Spycher from Mountain Dairy Fritzenhaus, canton of Bern, wins his second title as the maker of the world’s best cheese – Gourmino Le Gruyère AOP cheese, as he got the same title in 2008! Swiss cheese captured the first prize also in 2014 and were a runner up in 2016 and 2018. Switzerland produces more than 450 varieties of Swiss cheese. On top, nearly half the milk produced in the country turns eventually into cheese. But there is more to Swiss cheese than just variety! It’s a mirror of Swiss quality, of the Swiss attachment to their culture and on top of distinctive health benefits.
Swiss cheese is a reflection of Swiss culture and quality
The quality of the raw milk the Swiss use to make the cheese makes all the difference. In Switzerland hygiene practices are very strict, making un-pasteurised dairy not only common, but also safe.
Swiss farmers have the respect beyond the scope of food production and have the trust for public safety. Switzerland sees them as stewards of the land. Government subsidies and gives support to help keep farming families in rural areas. These families maintain the wide spread green pastures that Switzerland is well known for.
Every spring, dairy farmers walk their cows up the Swiss mountainside, encouraging cattle to graze on the grasses and natural pastures. As an outcome, cows trim and fertilize the fields, keeping the Swiss countryside as vibrant and green as a postcard. If you see a mark on the cheese “fromage d’alpage/Alpkäse“, it indicates that the cheese was produced directly on the mountain pastures in the summer months only in the traditional manner. This gives the Alpkäse a character and flavour that’s particular to its region due to the herbs and flowers that the cows have been munching on. In many of our mountain hikes we encountered Swiss farmers with their Alpkäse products, and we never hesitated to buy or atleast taste some Alpkäse. The food culture of Switzerland is a reflection of its melting pot culture (as is evident by its four main languages and several cantons). You’ll find soft and buttery cheeses as well as hard melting versions, perfect for the national dish, the Swiss fondue, which is literally is a mix of melted cheese around which family or friends gather. The Swiss fondue is not only a melted cheese recipe but a family activity that reflects a lot of the traditions of this diverse country.
Swiss cheese is tasty and healthy
Many hard Swiss cheeses – such as Le Gruyère, Emmentaler, Sbrinz – use raw, unpasteurized milk. The enzymes and bacteria they contain produce flavours in the cheese that pasteurized milk cannot achieve, particularly in the maturation process. Pasteurized cheeses – such as mozzarella – therefore have a milder flavour and one would eat it when ‘fresh’.
All of the dairy in Switzerland comes from grass-fed animals. The natural herbs and flowers the cows grow on, give the best Swiss cheese its rich flavour and particular character. More importantly it’s also much higher in two essential fatty acids that protect against heart disease: (CLA) conjugated linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Milk from grass-fed cows has five times more CLA than conventional milk. According to a 2010 study from Harvard School of Public Health, people with higher levels of CLA have a 36 percent lower risk of heart attack than those with the lowest levels. CLA consumption is also linked to protection from oxidative stress and diabetes. In addition, organic dairy from grass-fed cows also has double the heart-healthy omega-3 fat content as conventional milk, due to the presence of ALA, an essential fatty acid that occurs naturally when cows eat grass. ALA consumption shows to lower blood pressure, as well as to decrease risk of heart disease and strokes. Are you lactose intolerant? Some hard Swiss cheeses including Le Gruyère and Emmentaler don’t contain any lactose, since it’s broken down in the production process. Others, including Appenzeller and Raclette de Valais, contain low levels and are well tolerated by some lactose-intolerant people.
Swiss cheese is original and diverse
Ten best Swiss cheeses carry the AOP label (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), which means the product is entirely made in its region of origin. Among these are Emmentaler, Le Gruyère, L’Etivaz, Raclette de Valais, Tête de Moine and Vacherin Mont-d’Or. Another label, IGP (Indication Geographique Protégée) means that at least one step in the production process must have been carried out in the region of origin.
The top-produced type of Swiss cheese is Le Gruyère. And surprisingly, second is mozzarella, followed by Emmentaler, le séré (“fresh cheese”) and Raclette. Switzerland exports around a third of its cheese. Emmentaler – or also known as Emmental – is the most exported Swiss cheese, with Le Gruyère as a runner up.
Hard cheeses including Le Gruyère and Emmentaler are ready to eat after a minimum four months’ maturation period. And they achieve full maturity after 7 to 12 months. But you should let Sbrinz mature for two to three years in the cheese cellar before eating it.
What are the recommended best Swiss cheese types?
- Appenzeller: a hard cheese produced in the Alps of northern Switzerland. Each producer chooses whether to keep it in either a wine or cider mixture. The result is a robust cheese that’s rich in aroma and flavor.
- Emmental a semi-hard cheese famous with holes. It has a piquant flavor that isn’t quite sharp. It is thought that its bacteria that makes the holes in Emmentaler, which transform the lactose into carbon dioxide and create air pockets. However a 2015 study by Swiss agriculture body Agroscope countered this, saying the holes were caused by tiny bits of hay present in the milk, who knew?
- Le Gruyère: a sister to Emmental, but it typically has no holes. It comes from the village of Gruyères a charming medieval town that is definitely worth a visit when in Switzerland. Le Gruyère can range in texture from creamy to firm. It has a nutty flavor that is more pronounced when aged. It’s great in a grilled cheese sandwich or the dish croquet monsieur and also commonly tops French onion soup.
- Raclette perhaps the one Swiss cheese that characterizes Switzerland the most. It is also the name of the dish – Raclette. You would typically shave this semi-hard cheese with a hot knife and spread on toasted bread or beside small potatoes and pickles. A typical question you get in a Swiss traditional restaurant is (do you want) “Raclette” or “Swiss fondue“?
- Sbrinz is one of the oldest European cheeses. It has an extra-hard texture that is almost like Parmesan cheese. It’s great for grating over pasta dishes and also makes a nice appetizer when served along with antipasti.
- Tête de Moine comes from the Jura mountains. The name literally means the “monk’s head” as monks were originally producing it. The Swiss serve this cheese in an unusual way — they scrape it with a tool called “girolle”. This knife-like contraption revolves around the wheel of cheese and scrapes ribbons of the pungent and fruity cheese.
- Vacherin comes in two types: Mont d’Or and Fribourgeois. The first one is a soft creamy brie-like cheese that is made in the Jura region. Cheese makers produce it seasonally and sell it in round wooden boxes. Fribourgeois is a firmer cheese that tastes a lot like Italian fontina. It’s greatly used in Swiss fondue.
Wherever you are travelling in Switzerland don’t miss tasting several local Swiss cheeses, and of course take some home also! If you are hiking in the mountains you will sometimes encounter Swiss farmers so don’t hesitate to taste the Alpkäse!