When North Americans use the term “Swiss Cheese,” what they are most often referring to is a pale yellow cheese with many large holes throughout. This is a type of Swiss cheese, but it has a specific name, Emmentaler. It’s ironic that one type of cheese should come to represent “Swiss Cheese” since it’s been estimated that this relatively small country (about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined) produces about 450 different kinds of cheese!
Although I do enjoy a nice slice of Emmentaler, I find some of the lesser-known Swiss cheeses much more fascinating. From the near-gooey Vacherin Mont d’Or to the extra-hard Sbrinz, there is a world of cheese to discover beyond “Swiss Cheese.”
In order of firmness:
- Sbrinz: This extra-hard cheese is often compared to Parmesan cheese, and is used in a very similar way. It is claimed that Sbrinz is the oldest European cheese, first produced in 70 AD (according to the official website). For more information, check out the official Sbrinz Web site.
- Emmentaler: The ubiquitous “Swiss Cheese” in North America. Originating in the Emme valley near Bern, this cheese bears the trademark large holes, caused by carbon dioxide released as part of the fermentation process.
- Gruyère: Probably the second-best known Swiss cheese, Gruyère is produced mainly in the French-speaking areas of Switzerland, and also in France itself. A good melting and cooking cheese, this hard cheese is used often in fondues, French onion soup and the classic French sandwich, the Croque Monsieur. Claimed by both Switzerland and France, read this article for more information about the controversy.
- Schabziger/Sap Sago: An odd-looking cheese, shaped into a cone and colored green by the addition of the herb blue melilot (sometimes called blue fenugreek), Schabziger is made with skimmed milk, and is virtually fat-free. It can be mixed with butter to be used as a spread, or used in fondue. It was originally marketed under the name “Sap Sago” in the U.S., on account of the green “sap” used in its production. Although the text is in German, the Web site for the Schabziger production group, Geska, includes some interesting photos.
- Appenzeller: This semi-hard cheese, named for the Appenzell region from which it comes, is sold at various stages of the aging process. While it is curing, it is washed with a herbal brine, often incorporating wine or cider, which gives the cheese a fruity flavor.
- Raclette: Raclette refers both to a type of cheese, and to the most-common method of cooking with it. Raclette, the dish, is prepared by heating the cheese and scraping (racler in French) the melted portion on to a plate, to be eaten with a variety of accompaniments (most commonly small potatoes and gherkins).
- Tête de Moine: Originally called Bellelay after the monastery where it was first produced, it was renamed after the French Revolution; there are several theories about how the name came about, but it does refer to a “Monk’s Head.” Slighty nutty and quite pungent, this cheese is best served when sliced incredibly thin, often using a device called a girolle.
- (& 9) Vacherin Fribourgeois & Vacherin Mont d’Or: Both made from cow’s milk (Vacherin comes from the French word for cow, vache), Vacherin Fribourgeouis is the firmer of the two, and is a common ingredient in fondue recipes. Vacherin Mont d’Or is much softer, and is often served by heating it in its wooden box, and then dipping items into it, like fondue, or spooning the melted cheese over other foods, as with Raclette.
Update: This post was featured in the October 9th, 2006 edition of the Carnival of Cheese.