Emmentaler Cheese: The Swissest of the Swiss
Emmentaler (or Emmental cheese) is the original Swiss…but you don’t have to import it when there’s great traditional Emmental cheese made right here.
So you’re making yourself a ham-and-cheese sandwich…or a classic Reuben. Or maybe a smooth, tangy fondue to serve with French bread. What kind of cheese are you going to reach for? If you’re like most Americans, the answer is Swiss cheese…but what you really have in mind is Emmentaler.
What Is Emmentaler? Or is it Emmental?
Emmentaler (or Emmental cheese) is a medium-hard cheese originating in the area around Emmental, Switzerland. Either term is correct: Emmental is the name of the place, while Emmentaler describes something from there…like America vs. American. The Emmental is a valley (the word tal in German means “valley” or “dale”) in west-central Switzerland. Forming part of the canton of Bern, the region is hilly and mostly devoted to dairy farming.
Emmentaler (pronounced EMM-en-tall-er) is what we all know as Swiss cheese. You may also see it spelled Emmenthal, but it’s still pronounced the same: with a t rather than a th. In Switzerland, there is no “Swiss cheese”; instead, there are a number of Alpine cheeses—Emmentaler, Gruyère, Fontina and others—from different regions.
Switzerland is multi-ethnic, and so are its cheeses. Gruyère comes from a predominantly French area, while Fontina is an Alpine cheese originating in Italy. But as Switzerland is mostly German, it stands to reason that the cheese with the German name—Emmentaler—is the definitive Swiss cheese.
Emmentaler is pale yellow and riddled with distinctive holes, or “eyes.” It has a hard, thin rind covered by paper with the producer’s name on it. The aroma is sweet, with notes described by some as similar to fresh-cut hay. Its flavor is nutty and somewhat buttery, with a slightly fruity, acidic tone.
As is the case with many cheeses, Emmentaler gets its unique qualities from bacterial cultures. Without getting too technical, there are three of them. In a late stage of cheese production, one type of bacteria consumes the lactic acid produced by the other two and releases acetate, propionic acid, and carbon dioxide gas. The carbon dioxide forms the bubbles that become the “eyes,” while the acetate and propionic acid give the cheese its characteristic nutty and sweet flavor.
Traditionally made from unpasteurized milk in huge copper kettles and formed into wheels weighing up to 200 pounds, Emmentaler is truly a giant among cheeses. Its distinctive holes are formed during the aging period, as it gives off gases that form air pockets within the cheese. These holes, called “eyes,” grow larger during the aging process. In Switzerland, traditional Emmental cheese must be aged a minimum of four months. This is known as “classic” Emmentaler. “Reserve” Emmentaler is aged for eight months, and Premier cru for 14 months. The denomination “Emmentaler Switzerland” is protected; however, the term “Emmentaler” is not. Accordingly, one can find Emmentaler cheese from France, Bavaria, Finland…and, of course, the United States.
Emmental with an American Accent
Swiss cheese came to America in the mid-1800s when Swiss immigrants brought the traditional Emmentaler cheese recipe with them and started small cheese operations, first in the state of New York and eventually westward to Green County, Wisconsin.
The Swiss cheesemakers either brought the traditional copper kettles with them or had them made here, and the art lived on. However, the process of making the huge 200-pound wheels was labor-intensive, and the aging process took valuable time and space. Over the years, some cheesemakers tweaked the formula, sometimes using whole instead of part-skim milk or forming the cheese into smaller wheels that would require less ripening time and could be sold earlier. This is how Wisconsin’s mild, buttery Baby Swiss cheese was born.
Other Swiss cheese manufacturers took the basic recipe and adapted it to a much larger scale, and today one can find American “Swiss cheese” virtually anywhere. It’s a perfectly good, natural product, even if it lacks the fresh, young character of Baby Swiss or the aged dignity of Swiss Emmental cheese. But good Emmental doesn’t have to come from Switzerland…or even Europe.
Wisconsin’s Traditional Emmentaler Cheese
There is one artisan who still makes Emmentaler cheese the way it’s done in Switzerland…and it stands to reason he would be located in “America’s Little Switzerland,” aka Green County, Wisconsin. Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman, of Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, preserves the ancestral Swiss cheesemaking heritage, skillfully crafting 100% authentic Emmentaler cheese in an old-fashioned copper kettle direct from Switzerland. He uses raw milk (heat-treated for added safety) sourced from grass-fed cows on only three farms, and the cheese is formed into 180-pound wheels just like traditional Swiss Emmentaler. In fact, Edelweiss Creamery is the only facility in the country with the capability to produce these amazing wheels of cheese.
Workman describes the taste of his Emmentaler as “creamy, sweet and nutty with a very pronounced flavor”…and many experts are more than impressed with his work. Edelweiss Creamery’s Emmentaler Cheese has not only won First Place awards from American Cheese Society; it was deemed the best in a blind taste test conducted by Cook’s Illustrated, operators of “America’s Test Kitchen.”
Emmentaler Cheese Recipes
Because “Swiss cheese” is actually Emmentaler, you can use Emmentaler in any recipe calling for Swiss…generally with better results. Of course, since traditional Emmentaler cheese comes with a premium price tag, you would be well advised to use it in a recipe that best showcases its subtle nuances. Try it in one of these excellent Emmentaler cheese recipes from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Emmentaler Cheese Fondue Recipe
Emmentaler Cheese Pairings
Being an Alpine cheese, Emmentaler goes well with other foods from that region…and others that either complement or contrast with its sweet, nutty character. Be sure to enjoy Emmentaler at room temperature. Beyond that, here are some pairing suggestions:
Whites: riesling, grüner veltliner, Jura Blanc, ice wines
Reds: merlot, pinot noir, zinfandel, syrah/shiraz
Bock, lager, pale ale, stout, weiss
Ham, beef, poultry, pork
Apples, pears, dried fruits