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Cheese is an institution in Switzerland. Everyone eats it, morning noon and night; some is still made in the traditional way by hand on summer mountain pastures (and so represents the very core of Swissness to the Swiss themselves); it’s a lucrative pillar of industry and is exported to serve as an ambassador for Switzerland to the world; and it bears about as much resemblance to a shrink-wrapped Mild Cheddar or Monterey Jack as a muddy brick does to a wedge of black forest gateau.
Cheese has been around in Switzerland at least since the Romans, for whom caseus helveticus (“Swiss cheese”) was popular enough to catch the eye of the historian Pliny. For centuries, cheesemaking was a skill confined to mountain farmers, sequestered for months with their herds in summer pastures. After the opening of the Gotthard Pass in the thirteenth century, farmers would travel to Italy to trade their cheese for luxury goods such as wine and spices, a tradition which continued virtually into the modern era.
These days, some 1200 village dairies are in daily operation, processing fresh, mostly raw, milk from local cows. (Pasteurization is frowned upon by most cheesemakers, who claim it undermines the full body and aroma of the cheese; helpfully, Swiss hygiene regulations on the matter are much less stringent than those of the EU. All Swiss cheese is made from raw milk unless otherwise stated.) Locally produced cheeses are savoured much as local beers are in Britain or local wines in France.
Most cheese is now produced in the valleys, but the tradition of making Alpine cheese (Bergkäse, Alpkäse; fromage des alpes; formaggio alpe) over the short summers on high pastures is very much alive. The ceremonies driving cattle up to the lush alps in June, and down again in October, are festive celebrations in rural areas (Appenzell, and around Gruyères in Canton Fribourg, for instance). Only cheese which has been made on the alp from raw milk processed from cows fed on fresh grass, wildflowers and clover can qualify for the Bergkäse name. The cheeses are produced by hand, allowed to ripen for a few months, and then at the end of the summer are handed out to the farmers proportionately, according to the number of cattle they own. Many are sold on to specialist cheese shops around the country, where they are much in demand for their richness and individual nuances of flavour.
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