Emmentaler (Week 35)

emmentaler-2
What’s in a hole?

Cheese: Emmentaler rezent

Producer:

Where: Emmental, Bern, Switzerland

In today’s popular parlance, this cheese is a boss. In particular the kind that is ripened some 18 months, and that the Swiss call ‘rezent’, which has nothing to do with recent, on the contrary. The word means something like ‘sharp’, and that tasty sharpness is reached after ageing for a good long while.

The valley of the Emme in the Canton of Bern has seen people make cheese for some 800 years, most of the time just for their own use, and to give some of it in exchange for their lease of the pastures to their feudal lords. Only in the early 19th century did it become more widespread and then it took off. Emmentaler is one of the most copied cheeses in the world – heck, even Kraft slices come in something that vaguely resembles the Swiss King of Cheese. I am frankly surprised the Swiss have not ever considered severing ties with the US for that abomination. Emmentaler as protected by the AOP designation is now made in a fairly sizeable part of Switzerland, not just in the Emme Valley, but the stipulations about its production are still quite stringent: raw milk, no silage for the cows, a certain percentage of the diet of the cows has to come from fresh grass etc.

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Wirth’s stall on the Basel Market

My ‘rezenter Emmentaler’ came from the Wirth cheese stand on Basel’s main market, and like in many other places, the cheese is not presented as from a particular producer – so it is anyone’s guess if the cheese is actually from that fabled valley, or from a place in the neigborhood that fits the bill laid out in the rules of the AOP. So yes, I am lying up there where it says ‘where’… all I know for sure is the cheese is from Switzerland (if it isn’t, someone else is lying)

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Holy holes!

Of course all of this is fine and good, but really, the only thing everyone always wanted to know about Emmentaler is: where do the holes come from? Meet Propionibacterium freudenreichii. Freudi, as I like to call him, is a bacteria that inhabits, well, us – there are quadrillions of them in our skin. Freudi is also useful in the production of certain cheeses, and when he is done with his useful reductive work, he leaves flavor and a lot of gas, CO₂ to be exact. The gas finds tiny little bits of haydust in the cheese, enters the minute little capillaries in the hay and voom! it expands and creates a hole.

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Emmentaler Crater

If that sounds farfetched, don’t take my word for it. Buy a copy of the study by some Emmentaler-obsessed Swiss scientists in Bern (it will set you back $40, so you may just want to trust me on this one). Raw milk contains more bacteria than pasteurized milk (among them also lactobacillus helveticus, a colleague of Freudi who does a lot of groundwork for him, before he gets started with the whole gasmaking operation) and winter milk has more haydust in it than summer milk, so you know what to do when you want big holes in your cheese. The holes ought to be round, poorly shaped holes may very well point to poor performance on the part of the bacteria and hence poor quality cheese. And the salt crystals and the occasional ‘tear’ of salt water in the bigger holes of the more ripened cheese: it’s all part of the fun. I am sure that you are familiar with the sweet, sour taste of Swiss cheese. Add to that the multi-layered depth owed to raw milk and a natural production process and then, bam! compound that with the body and complexity that comes from 18 months of careful ageing – and there’s a cheese to bow in front of, and chant: ‘we’re not worthy, not worthy, not worthy’, before taking a big fat bite.

cheese-plate-with-emmentaler
Cheese selection from Wirth’s in Basel: the Boss on the left, Biermutschli (top) and raw milk Epoisses in the middle and the ‘cheese of the week’ (dang it! forgot what it was) on the right.

 

Biermutschli – Made in Basel (Week 33)

biermutschli-ii
Mutschli+Beer+Hops+a little smoke = Biermutschli

Cheese: Biermutschli

Producer: Käserei Reckenkien, Familie Stoll

Where: Mümliswil, Solothurn, Switzerland

The Swiss buy Swiss. Of course they buy German cars and Korean cell phones. But when you go to any grocery store, it is very easy to find out where your food is coming from, and the information doesn’t just reassure buyers that they’re getting ‘made in Switzerland’. Often, the canton is identified as well, and I have seen cheeses with perky little signs that tell you the family farm whence the Käse came from, and this not just in high end cheese shops. Of course, it makes many things quite expensive, because anyone in Switzerland engaged in producing your foodstuffs is paid a decent wage, generous benefits and excellent but expensive healthcare. The Biermustschli is a case in point.

A Mutschli is basically a small round semi-hard cheese somewhere between one and 10 lbs (so much smaller that many of those huge wheels the Swiss roll down the mountains). And this particular cheese comes from the town of Mümliswil, about an hour from Basel. It is made of raw milk and the cows are fed grass or hay exclusively. In ripening of the Biermutschli involves washing the rind with beer and hops; they also smoke the cheese a bit. And the beer used is Unser Bier, literally ‘our beer’, which comes with a tagline that epitomizes the fondness the Swiss have for locally produced things: Bier von hier statt von dort – beer from here instead of from there. Unser Bier got started with a guy who brewed 18 liters of beer in a pasta pan – the rest is history. They create some unusual brews – their summer beer has elderflowers in it, and for the fall they do pumpkin beer.

unser-bier-mutschli
Mutschli and Summer Beer with elderflower

The guy with the crown sticking out his tongue in the logo of Unser Bier is Basel’s famous Lällekönig, the name for a mechanical device in the shape of a human face with moving eyes and a tongue that moved in and out. Originally, this could be seen on the Rhinetower, and it was connected to the clock on that tower, which stood on the city-side of the old bridge across the river. Eventually, the Tongueking (the character wore a crown) became quite famous and today, with the tower and the original Lällekönig long gone, there is a replacement on the facade of the restaurant at the city end of the bridge. The people on the Grossbasel side of the river like to think the King is sticking out his tongue in the direction of Kleinbasel (little Basel, formerly an independent suburb – across the water, think of Oakland), but there is no historical evidence that the person who made the machine wanted to do anything else that createan entertaining contraption – and he succeeded. And of course, today the red tongue is on the Mutschli, a delightful cheese that just has the perfect balance of smokey, yeasty, a faint touch of bitter and a lot of creamy body – we went back to the market square, to the Wirth cheese stand, a week after we hand a conservative slice to try it to buy our own whole Mutschli. Soon e Kääs!