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Where Swiss cheese lovers must go:
Swiss cheese is not all full of big holes like the stuff you see in American grocery stores. That's a specific regional cheese called Emmentaler (from Emmental). Despite its holey reputation, some of the hundreds of varieties of Swiss cheese have no holes at all.
Appenzeller cheese falls somewhere in the middle; it's a cheese with a few small holes per wedge. The holes are controlled by the amount and type of bacteria used to make the cheese. This is just one of the things I didn't know I didn't know about cheese production when I visited the Appenzeller cheese dairy in Stein, Appenzellerland, Switzerland (above). It you'd like to visit yourself, click here to make arrangements. It makes a great outing for families or fromage-o-philes like myself -- they have a full free exhibition you can walk through, a video presentation, a gift shop and restaurant and, of course, a cheese shop. And yes, that's a giant, wooden wedge of cheese bigger than my NYC apartment out in front. You can go inside it.
Now, onto what you'll learn about the 700 year old Appenzeller cheese, renowned as the "spiciest cheese from Switzerland:"
The dairy guys get to work at about 4 AM to receive and test the milk brought in by local farmers. They test it to ensure that the cows ate nothing but hay and meadow grass. If farmers bring in bad milk once, they get a warning; twice and they are banned.
To create a consistent product, part of the milk is skimmed, then slowly re-added to the whole milk to ensure an exact fat content. This is a practice older than most cheese dairies. Some of the milk gets sent to another dairy to be made into "dairy butter," a regular Swiss grocery store item, and the rest is divided into Bio and Regular. "Bio" is the word they use for free-range and organic in Switzerland. Here's an interesting fact: free range cows have to have their horns (humanely) removed so that they don't hurt each other. Also, the prize cow of the bunch gets to wear this ginormous bell (right).
Gallery: Tour the Appenzeller Cheese Dairy
The rind, technically created by the salt bath, is treated with a secret marinade of white wine and herbs. Only two living people know the recipe for Appenzeller's famously spicy brine.
Appenzeller makes an assortment of different cheeses, and the different flavors are determined by aging, fat content and the amount of the marinade used.
The cheese passport.
Every Appenzeller cheese wheel bears a unique passport, saying the place and date it was made. The date stamp doesn't include the year, because you should definitely not be eating unpasteurized cheese (meaning the milk was never heated to 75 degrees Celsius) that wasn't made within the year.
The cheese passport is a very serious business for the Appenzeller folks, as it's one of the things that helps them protect the quality of their reputation. If one of the dairy guys accidentally breaks or loses a cheese passport, he has to pay about $30 for it. This is to prevent them from the temptations of trafficking counterfeit cheese -- one could make a pretty penny labeling cheap cheese with the Appenzeller passports. Appenzeller not only makes their cheeses meticulously, but they only sell the very best ones.
What happens to the waste?
Part of the reason that Appenzeller cheese commands a good price is that it is guaranteed to be of extremely high quality. They test cheese from each batch rigorously, rating it on a number of different variances. Cheese that doesn't score top marks gets made into grated cheese, packaged cheese or it gets sent off to be put into sauce mixes.
As for the waste created in making the cheese, it all gets made into pig slop -- it's actually quite good for the pigs. That's the kind of eco-friendly practice that made as much sense 700 years ago as it does today.
Photos by Annie Scott.
My trip to Switzerland was sponsored by Switzerland Tourism, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.