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Ben there, done that

The hole truth about Swiss cheese

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Cheese – sometimes soft and creamy, sometimes hard and brittle, but no matter the form, always delicious. Growing up in Montana, I was well accustomed to all the classics: Cheddar, Colby Jack, Provolone, Mozzarella, and Swiss. When I relocated to Switzerland, I had the doors flung wide open to a whole new world of cheeses. Dairy products have been a deeply embedded aspect of Swiss culture for millennia. Every little town, region, or village seems to have its own special variety of cheese its people are immensely proud of. Oftentimes, these cheeses share the same name as the geographical location of their origin. There is no overarching “Swiss” cheese, just hundreds of distinct regional varieties that differ immensely.

Unlike Swiss cheese in the US, the majority of cheeses don’t have holes. So, this made me question: Where did the Swiss cheese in the US originate? Is it some faux traditional recipe with a fancy name to encourage better sales? Was it a recipe brought over long ago, now evolved into something completely divorced from the original? Well, sort of.

The Swiss cheese we know and love in North America is based on a traditional recipe from a small but prolific dairy-producing region around the Swiss village of Emmental. Classified as a firmer “Alpine-style” cheese, Emmental cheese commonly features “eyes,” the technical term for the distinctive holes that are so iconic. “Blind” sub-varieties also exist that do not feature the holes. The first record of this kind of cheese being made in Emmental, the name “Emmental” was not commonly used until 1542. 

The secret ingredient of Emmental cheese is the bacteria that is used in culturing milk. There are three key strains that are vital to the process: Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus helveticus, and Propionibacterium freudenreichii. These bacteria create carbon dioxide which forms into bubbles as the cheese cures leaving behind the iconic “eyes.”

Emmental cheese became quite popular in Switzerland and across Europe for its desirable and unique nutty flavor. Then in 1845, a group of Swiss immigrants settled in Green County, Wisconsin. With them came the knowledge of making cheese and a desire to produce new kinds of cheese based on old Swiss methods. The hole-filled Emmental-style cheese was introduced to Americans. While not an exact copy of the original, it was very similar. In typical American style, the cheese was quickly coined “Swiss cheese” and the name has stuck ever since. As of 2013, Americans consume about one pound of Swiss cheese per person per year, placing it easily among the most popular varieties. 

While both the original Emmental and successive American Swiss cheeses are similar in numerous ways, there are also some key differences. These divergences were first on account of differences in available materials and later evolved separately to match consumer tastes in the different markets. Today, the American Swiss is a bit softer with a distinctly mild flavor while the original Swiss Emmental has more vibrant yellow coloring and robust flavor. Both are quite tasty in my personal opinion, however, I must say, I favor the original.

The tale of how American Swiss cheese came to be, is a prime example of cultural exchange. This happens all over the world, when a group of people from one country bring aspects of their culture to new places. Over time, the bits of transplanted culture take root and begin to evolve into something new – no longer wholly true to its origin but not entirely divorced from it either. Because the modern United States of America is a nation consisting primarily of immigrants, we have many hidden gems of our culture we owe to this process. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, countless cultural exchanges are happening. Although this may be perceived as threatening, I contend the benefits outweigh the losses. Just imagine life without apple pie, hot dogs, barbeque, cowboys, fireworks, Santa Claus, or even doughnuts; all of which came to us via cultural exchange.

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