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The Hol(e)y War of Emmental Cheese
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The Hol(e)y War of Emmental Cheese

The holes are the signature characteristic of Emmental cheese from the Val d’Emme Swiss region. But what happens if an Ohio factory launches its own Emmental?

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In the year 1000, the Swiss region of Val d’Emme is static – immobile. The Emme takes its name from the river that runs between the mountains of Berne and joins lake Brienz to the Aar river, a tributary of the Reno. Here, the cows graze peacefully, following only their instinct and eating so much that their udders explode. Farmers milk them twice a day and then collect the milk into giant vessels.

The bacteria that begins to ferment gets trapped in the milk – not even bacteria manages to escape from the Val d’Emme. And the gas produced by this bacteria concentrates in some parts, forming holes. It is these holes that are the signature characteristic of Emmental, the cheese from the Val d’Emme region in Switzerland. Centuries later, the valley is still largely unchanged and this carbonic gas is really the only ferment that creates excitement among farmers and cheese-makers.

THE SECRET OF EMMENTAL CHEESE'S HOLES

The particularity of Emmental exists in its structure composed of internal cavities, about the size of eyes. Or rather, the size of an almond, if an almond were round like a cherry and a vitreous transparency. But the holes found in Emmental cheese aren’t all the same size – and even if, by chance, they were all in the shape of an almond and the size of a cherry, the quantity of gas would still be different. And the reason for the variations among them is because the “sculptor” between them is different.

These natural “sculptors” in fact, are called Thermophilus, Lactobacillus and Propionibacter Shermani. The first two use lactose as a source of energy to produce the acidity from which its fermentation process. Instead, Propionibacter, intervenes when the surrounding temperature rises and uses the lactic acid to produce carbon dioxide and propionic acid. The carbon dioxide expands into gas bubbles, making the holes, while the propionic acid of Swiss Emmental gives the cheese its unmistakable taste.

Switzerland vs USA

Almost five hundred years later, at the dawn of the 21st Century, the North American cheese-making sector found itself in turmoil precisely for those holes, and spasms of renovation began to run through the placid Val d’Emme – bringing changes even more dramatic than Calvin’s Protestant reforms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began installing new parameters for regulating the size of American Emmental, calling it “Swiss Cheese” and which was being produced in massive quantities – an Ohio factory alone was churning out 64 million pounds of it a year, most of it being produced by the Kraft behemoth, according to a patent deposited in 1950. In contrast to the original version, “Swiss Cheese”, of which the only “Swiss” element was its name – assumed the shape of a parallelepiped, came without crust and was aged in a semi-permeable plastic film.

The reason behind the revolutionizing of “Swiss” Cheese was to keep pace with the modern and lightning-quick American-made slicers, whose blades were getting caught in the Swiss mould with ¾ inch diameter holes – about the size of a penny – while they were sawing off a thousand slices of cheese per minute. After all, nothing can or should get in the way of an American slicer.

So that very year, a law decreed that the holes had to measure 3/8 inches, a dimension that the Ohio slicers could manage. But how could they change the holes? All you needed to do was reduce the heat of the area in which the cheese was aged, to reduce the activity of Propionibacter shermanii, the workaholic sculptor with an eager chisel. And so, all of a sudden, the American Emmental, whose colour and taste were already dissimilar to the original, now even had smaller “eyes”.

BIG HOLE OR SMALL HOLE?

The position taken by the USFDA was based on the concept that the holes were, actually, “nothing”, or – at the very most – their existence was only relative to the rest of the cheese, so really, the shape and size of the holes had virtually no importance whatsoever. The “downs-eyesing” of American “Swiss” cheese, could only be considered an ethical matter, despite the fact that many experts thought that the holes in the original Emmental could be comparable to its own mass and so should be considered as a part of the cheese itself. So if it’s true that every hole in Emmental is an integral part of the rest of the cheese, it also follows that in nature, “half holes” don’t exist.

The “big hole” vs. “small hole” dispute was eventually resolved by the cheese-makers in the Val d’Emme with the request that the original and more noble version of the “holey” cheese be allowed to change its name. On 25 September, 2006, the federal courthouse of Lausanne re-baptized Emmentaler Schwitzerland DOP, submitting it into the register of the Products of Protected Origins. The “hol(e)y war” has now ended without any real victims, just a mere variation in diameter. And with the blessings of the all-important Thermophilus, Lactobacillus and Propionibacter Shermani.

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