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Making cheese

Stirring the cheese (in new window)

Stirring the cheese© Moléson tourist office

Heating, stirring, pressing, turning, bathing - and waiting. Cheesemaking is a very delicate art; every stage of the process counts for the final taste, from the kind of grass eaten by the cows which give the milk, to the way it is stored - and indeed, the way it is served up to be eaten. This is roughly how it goes:

High quality

Switzerland prides itself on putting quality first, and cheese is no exception. Swiss cows eat grass in summer and hay in winter. No silage for them if their milk is to be made into cheese, as the resulting high spore content in the milk could lead to butyric acid fermentation, which in turn will spoil the flavour and texture of the end product.
The milk has to be delivered to the cheese factory between 18 and 24 hours after milking, otherwise it is regarded as too old. Most Swiss cheese is made with unpasteurised milk, an additional reason to treat it as soon as possible after milking.
Not surprisingly, most cheese-making enterprises are out in villages, so the milk does not have to travel too far. Cheese is also still made up in the mountains by herdsmen during the summer months.

One gallon of milk for one pound of cheese

The first stage in cheesemaking is to heat the milk in a vat or cauldron to 32 degrees (90 degrees F), stirring constantly. Once it has reached the required temperature, rennet - taken from the stomach lining of calves - and a fermentation culture is added and the stirring stops. These ingredients act to coagulate the milk, turning it into a jelly-like mass of curds. This is then simultaneously cut up and stirred with a "cheese harp" - so called because it is strung with wires like the musical instrument. This separates out the whey, and reduces the rest to granules, no bigger than grains of maize. The mixture is heated during this process, in order to get rid of the liquid. The size of the granules determines the type of cheese: the larger they are, and the more liquid remains, the softer the final cheese.

A good cheese requires the temperature to be exactly right at all these stages. It's the mark of a skilled cheesemaker that he (or she) knows just when the mass is ready for the next operation. In the days when cheese was made in a huge cauldron over an open fire, this wasn't easy. For centuries the cauldron used to be hung from a swivelling pole so that it could easily be removed from the heat. This system is still used today up in the mountains. But in the 19th century an ingenious device replaced it: the "fire wagon." The fire was laid not in the fireplace, but in a container which ran on rails. The heat could be much better used, since when not needed for the cheese, the wagon was pushed under a second cauldron to provide the hot water vital to keep all the equipment spotlessly clean.

The granules produced by the harp are put in a mould, and pressed in order to get rid of more liquid. It's at this stage that the wheels of cheese receive their identifying mark, which enables every one to be traced back to its manufacturer. After about a day the cheese is removed from the mould, and immersed in a salt bath, the recipe for which is a closely guarded secret, since it is this brine which first gives the cheese its particular aroma. A soft cheese remains in the bath for about two hours, while an extra hard variety can stay for up to 72. This is also when the rind begins to form.

It takes about 10 litres of milk to make one kilogramme of cheese, or roughly one gallon for one pound.

Maturing

The final stage is the maturing process. The cheeses are kept in cellars with humidity of over 90% and carefully controlled temperatures, depending on the type. But there's no question of simply leaving them there and forgetting about them. Storing cheese is a skilled job too.

In the cellars, as the natural fermentation continues, they continue to be rubbed with brine and turned. Some cheeses have a special recipe for this daub. Appenzeller, for example, is treated with a mixture of white wine, herbs and spices.

The maturing time varies with the type and quality of cheese. For soft cheese it is only a few weeks; for harder ones it is always several months, and may even be years. Even while they are maturing, the cheeses are tested for quality. Inspectors have special probes to withdraw small samples to check taste and general texture, and they tap the cheese with a kind of tuning fork to detect cracks hidden deep beneath the rind.

Tête de Moine shaved by the girolle

Tête de Moine shaved by the girolle© Switzerland Cheese

Swiss specials

There are many factors that give each cheese its own unique flavour. For example, the unmistakably delicate taste of Vacherin Mont d'Or owes much to the pine box in which it is left to ripen. Vacherin was originally produced between October and spring, because farmers did not have enough milk during the winter months to produce the larger Gruyère cheese wheels. Over time, this practice is now a real tradition, with Vacherin Mont d'Or now being made from the end of September through to April.

When it comes to Tête de Moine, there's only one way to serve it. It must be shaved, not cut into hunks. One theory about how it got its name - "monk's head" - says that the top was always sliced off so that the required amount of cheese could be shaved out, and the effect of replacing the "lid" was to make the cheese look like a tonsured head. Nowadays a special instrument called a "girolle" is used, which shaves the cheese into elegant rosettes.