Switzerland is not only famous for its Swiss watch making. This Alpine country in the middle of some of the most beautiful land in Europe has a rich tradition of producing some of the world’s finest chocolates and also some of the world’s finest cheese.
It is not clear just when it started, but the history of Swiss cheese making goes back a long way indeed. Historians note that by Roman times, cheesemaking was common throughout Europe: as early as the first century, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder mentions “Caseus Helveticus”, or the cheese of the Helvetions, a group living in what would later be Switzerland. Emmental cheese, one of the most famous of the Swiss cheeses, was first produced in the Emmental Valley for which it was named around the year 1293. There is evidence that sometime in the 15th century, the process of using a substance called rennet in the cheesemaking process to make the cheese harder was introduced here. This hard cheese would not spoil as quickly as soft cheeses would, and in an age when there was no refrigeration and food preservation was a major consideration, this made Swiss cheese an extremely valuable commodity.
Swiss cheese was was so valuable, in fact, that by the 18th century, this cheese was being purchased all over the European Continent and the Swiss were not only making money from exporting cheese, but also exporting cheesemakers. They settled in regions as diverse as the United States, Russia and Eastern Europe and were highly valued as dairymen. It was also in Switzerland that another revolution in the history of cheesemaking occurred: the first cheese factory opened here in 1815, though it was not until cheesemaking became popular in America that factory production of cheese really took off. Before this, cheesemaking was an at-home, domestic activity and a skill largely dominated by farmer’s wives, each of whom had slightly different techniques to bring to bear on this activity.
And while the Swiss have greatly changed cheese, cheese has also greatly changed Switzerland! Up until the 1930′s, the rich grasses of the Swiss plateaus were used to pasture cows as well as sheep and goats. However, as Switzerland’s population boomed, especially after World War II, more and more of the countryside was developed to meet the needs of an increasingly urban country. Since most Swiss cheese is made from cow’s milk, farmers considered it best to save the rich grass of the plateau pastures for the exclusive use of raising cows. Today, nearly all sheep and goats in Switzerland are pastured on higher, steeper slopes that would not be able to support cows. This difference was greatly altered the appearance of traditional Swiss farms.
Up to the present day, the influence of cheesemaking on the nature of Swiss farm life is still evident: cheese factories in Switzerland are generally in small towns or villages, and cheesmaking families are required to live close to where the cheese is produced so that the quality of the cheese remains high. There are strict laws on things such as the number of days cows must be pastured (20 out of the month) and the use of silage is forbidden. Obsession with the care and handling of cows to produce the best cheese-making milk possible is a hallmark of Swiss dairymaking:for instance, farmers in the Emmental Valley generally only have a herd of 20 cows. The small size of the herd allows for them to give the cows a high standard of care so that the quality of the milk will not be compromised. All of this has had a huge influence on the rural Swiss landscape.
Thus, the history of Swiss cheesemaking is a two-way street: it is a story of the way a country has developed cheese, but also the way that the methods of cheesemaking have in turn altered the way this country has developed.