Emmental | Itineraries of taste


If the image that comes to mind from the word “Switzerland” is one of steep, snow-crested mountains, then the region of Emmental provides the picture’s lush green foreground. This central region in the canton of Bern forms the basin of the river Emme, and the landscape is comprised of rolling, vivid green hills of lush grass dotted with steep-roofed A-frame houses and barns.

Because the hills here are at a lower altitude than the more jagged peaks of the famous Alps, the grass grows for longer during the year, and dairy cows can graze in the bucolic landscape for longer. This extended grazing period produces more milk, which is imbued with the rich sweetness of mountain herbs and grasses. The Emmental cheeses that bear the region’s name weigh 90 to 110kg apiece, and require 1,200 litres of milk per round.

The techniques used to make cheeses here have remained largely unchanged for centuries. First the raw, unpasteurised milk is heated in a large vat and stirred as it starts to curdle and coagulate. The curds are then placed in round moulds, any remaining liquid is pressed out and the cheese is then left in a salt bath for two days. The salt acts as both flavouring and a preservative, and encourages a natural rind to form. The young cheese is then taken from the salt bath and moved to a storage room to ferment and ripen.

The fermentation process happens due to three different types of bacteria, and large holes are formed in the cheese by the build up of carbon dioxide. The cheese is then cured for a minimum of four months for a classic Emmental, eight months to produce a reserve-quality cheese, or for höhlengereift (cave-aged) cheese, a truly exemplary Premier Cru, the ageing process is 14 months in humid caves. Longer ripening brings stronger, nuttier flavours and aromas.

Emmentaler, as it is properly known, is produced in a number of countries including Germany and France. Traditional Emmental, however, was designated an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in 2000; it is only made in and around the Emmental region and is labelled Emmentaler Switzerland. Around 30,000 tonnes of Emmental are made each year, much exported internationally.

The Swiss are no strangers to cheese: they make around 400 different types and have been at it for two millennia. But so famous and iconic is Emmental that it has become a kind of ur cheese; ask a child to draw a cheese and they’re likely to sketch a yellowish wedge featuring holes: a classic Emmental.

The nutty smooth flavours of Emmental make it a firm favourite on cheeseboards, and it is used thinly sliced in sandwiches, but the hard cheese can also be used in cooking. It can be grated onto gratins, and perhaps most famously, Emmental can sometimes be found in recipes of the classic Alpine fondue.

In the 1930s, fondue was promoted as the Swiss national dish by the Swiss Cheese Union to encourage consumption, and while it was considered a rustic Alpine dish it was very much a city-dweller’s meal. Although one of the earliest recipes for cheese cooked with wine dates back to Zurich in 1699, until the nineteenth century recipes also called for the addition of eggs, causing the famous French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin to describe it rather dismissively in 1834 as, "nothing other than scrambled eggs with cheese".

But that didn’t stop the rise of fondue. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, fondue took pride of place in the Swiss Pavilion’s Alpine restaurant, helping establish it as the dish of choice for 1960s and 1970s dinner parties on both sides of the Atlantic.

White wine is brought to a simmer in a fondue pot, or, caquelon, that has been rubbed inside with garlic. Whilst Gruyère remains the most popular cheese for fondue, Emmental is an equally delicious alternative, making it a firm favourite in some regions of Switzerland. The cheese is shredded & added (with a little corn starch to help create a smooth texture), and then gently melted over a low heat. Once the cheese is melted, a dash of kirsch is added and then it’s ready for eager eaters to start swirling cubes of bread into the rich, gooey mixture using long-handled forks.

Given the rich, comforting heft of the dish, it helps if you’ve been skiing beforehand, of course, but it’s not compulsory.

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