Recognized the world over Swiss-style cheeses are known for their pale yellow colour, slightly nutty flavour and large holes in the flesh. But though the Swiss have been making cheese for more than 2,000 years, no one knows for certain how these characteristic “eyes” first came about.
It’s believed the holes may have first appeared in the Middle Ages, a time when Swiss cheesemakers began turning out cheese wheels as heavy as 45 to 90 kg each. (This was a clever way for merchants to evade tolls levied for the total number of cheeses in their carts when travelling the roadways to city markets.) Surprisingly, when these large cheese wheels were stored in warm mountain caves for curing, big holes began to pop up.
Today we know when cheese curd is stored in a warm cellar environment, gas begins to form, creating bubbles and holes. We also know what the test of time has proven: Swiss cheese is wholly delicious – especially with a glass of wine or melted on a sandwich. Here are some of our favourite varieties:
This whole milk cow’s cheese is said to go as far back as the 8th century BC, but it most definitely existed during the time of Charlemagne (742-814 AD). Marinated in wine or cider before ageing, it has a delicate flavour that’s somewhat fruity. The firm, straw-coloured curd has tiny holes and a golden-brown rind. Best when eaten young, Appenzell is moister and creamier than Emmental, and more robust than Gruyère.
Bellelay (Tete de Moine)
This full-fat cow’s milk cheese has a pale yellow colour and a rich flavour reminiscent of Gruyère. Made for centuries, it is named after the Abbey of Bellelay monastery, where Swiss monks created it. The cheese was renamed Tête de Moine after the French Revolution, perhaps because of how it resembles a monk’s tonsured head when served: the top horizontal rind is removed and cut with a girolle, a special rotating knife which shaves the cheese into thin layers.
Switzerland’s oldest and most important variety, this traditional hard cheese has a thin rind, pale straw colour and marble-sized holes. Made from partially skimmed unpasteurised cow’s milk, it has a sweet aroma and a mellow, nutty flavour with tones of fruit and acidity. One of the most difficult cheeses to produce due to a complicated fermentation process, Emmental is typically made in 113 kg wheels. It is milder than Gruyère and perfect with a glass of wine, especially a light and fruity Jura Blanc.
Characterised by a dry, natural beige rind and thin orange plastic coating, this hard cow’s milk cheese has a spicy taste that intensifies when melted or grilled. It also has quite a storied history. Local Swiss documents record the cheese was served to the wife of Austria’s Duke Sigismund in the 15th century.
The rich, sweet, nutty flavour of Gruyère is highly prized for eating out of hand and for savoury cooking. In fact, the traditional, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese was once a source of conflict between Switzerland and France, who argued over the rights to its production and name. The Convention of Stresa finally granted rights to both countries in 1951. Swiss Gruyère has a natural dark brown rind and a smooth flesh with well-spaced pea-sized holes. It’s traditionally made in 100-pound wheels and cut into wedges for market.
This cow’s milk farmhouse cheese is aged six to seven years, and will keep almost indefinitely. It has a very tough, natural rind and a brittle texture that makes it excellent for grating. Saanen’s deep yellow interior is intensely fruity and the cheese is traditionally shaved off and served with fruity wines on special occasions. Historically, a wheel was put away at the birth of a child and brought out again for the child’s engagement.
Made from skimmed cow’s milk, this hard, cone-shaped cheese contains less than 10% fat. Light green in colour, it boasts a salty, sour and pungent herbal flavour that comes from the addition of powdered melilot (a special variety of clover). Very hard and gritty, Sapsago melts like Parmesan when heated. It makes a great food topping, adding savoury flavour to everything from salads to pastas.
One of the oldest Swiss cheeses, Sbrinz has its origin in Roman times. Made from whole cow’s milk, it is aged two to three years to create a brownish-yellow rind and a hard, dark yellow interior. With a rich, mellow, tangy flavour, it’s ideal as a table cheese or for grating and cooking. When aged for less time, Sbrinz is known as the softer Spalen.
Made in the Swiss canton of Fribourg, this rich and creamy cow’s milk cheese has a greyish-yellow rind and a pale yellow, semi-soft interior. Cured in very damp conditions to promote mould growth, the mildly acidic, resiny flavour is somewhat similar to Gruyère. With a soft, smooth consistency, this cheese is perfect for raclette or baking into warm, melt-in-your-mouth dishes.