Where Swiss Gets Holes and Other Cheesy Tidbits

Jennifer Nemec, associate editor
November/December 2007

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Part art and part science, cheese making integrates many variables into a product that reflects nuance of raw material, environment and process – not unlike the great wines of the world. In fact, regional influence on a cheese’s characteristics is important enough that the European Union has recognized about 160 cheeses with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). These cheeses (such as Roquefort) must be made in a certain place and with standard process to maintain their PDO status. No matter the care in its crafting, however, each batch of a specific PDO cheese will vary slightly from all other batches, but a blue cheese will always be recognizably different from cheddar. So what is it that separates Camembert from Stilton, and what makes cheddar so special?

First, the ingredients make the cheese, and milk is the primary ingredient – but not all milk is equal. Cheese-making milk comes from several different animal species; goat (chèvre), sheep (manchego), cow (Gouda) and even water buffalo (mozzarella) supply the raw material for several famous cheeses. Like wine, the environment where you obtain the milk can also make a big difference (see “Fine Farmstead Cheese,” Page 44). For example, Cantal and Salers cheese are made in exactly the same way, except one is made from the milk of Salers cattle while they winter in the barn and eat hay (Cantal), and the other is made in the spring and summer, while the same cattle are in the pasture eating grass (Salers). 

As a partially fermented food, which microbes you add to the cheese (and when you add them) also matters. Blue (or bleu) cheese has become a general classification for cheeses with Penicillium (fungi) cultures added (before or after curds form) to make it spotted or veined with blue or blue-green mold. These cheeses are generally sharp and a bit salty with pungent smell. The long list of blue cheeses includes Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Stilton.

Though originally made in rural Leicestershire, Stilton is named for the village of Stilton, England, because it was popularized at the Bell Inn there. To make Stilton, a starter, rennet and the mold Penicillium roqueforti are added to pasteurized milk. Wheels of milled, salted and unpressed curds are then aged (with regular turning) in a temperature-controlled cellar for 6 weeks, at which point it is pierced with stainless steel needles to help the mold form on the inside. It’s then aged for 3 to 9 more weeks. If eaten after 9 weeks, Stilton is a firm and crumbly, slightly acidic white cheese with veins of blue mold. As it ages toward 15 weeks, it becomes smoother and mellower. While definitely pungent and salty, Stilton is milder than other blue cheeses.

Cheeses with holes (or eyes) have also been changed by the addition of microbes, but in this case, the principal fermentation organisms are bacteria. Emmental or Swiss cheese, so named because it was originally made in the valley of the Emme in Switzerland, is made using three bacterial types, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus (L. helveticus or L. bulgaricus) and Propionibacter (P. freudenreichii or P. shermani). In a late stage of cheese production, the Propionibacter consumes the lactic acid produced by the other bacteria and releases carbon dioxide gas, which slowly forms the bubbles that develop the eyes. This process produces a yellow, medium-hard cheese with large holes (in true Emmental, the size of the holes is regulated) that is nutty and piquant, but not really sharp. Swiss cheeses with smaller holes are made with skim milk (Lacy or Lorraine Swiss) or with water substituted for whey (Baby Swiss) so that the bacteria runs out of food before the holes get too large.

Another way to affect the flavor of cheese is how you handle the curds. Camembert, named for the town of Camembert in the Normandy region of France, is a pale, soft-ripened, uncooked, cow milk cheese. During the entire process of making Camembert, the milk temperature never rises above body temperature (98.6°F). After the milk is curdled with rennet, the curd is carefully ladled (without breaking) into molds to drain. Then the fungi Penicillium candida and Penicillium camemberti are added to the surface, and the cheese is aged for at least 3 weeks to create a buttery, rich end product.

The somewhat mysterious process of cheddaring is named for the village of Cheddar in Somerset, England, and the pale yellow to orange hard cheese originally made there. After the curd is set and cut, it is heated and drained. The drained curd is then cut into slabs about 6 inches square and stacked in a heated cheese vat. The slabs are re-stacked and turned every 10 to 15 minutes until the acidity level of the draining whey reaches a certain point. Cheddar cheese is then milled, salted and pressed, before aging from 3 to 30 months (depending on the type and sharpness).

Curd handling is also very important in making the fresh Italian semi-soft cheese called Mozzarella. This family favorite is made using a process called pasta filata (which literally means “spun paste”) or, in English, pulled- or stretched-curd. After the curds are set and allowed to rest, they are placed in a pot of very hot whey (or water) until they float. Then most of the water is drained, and the curds are mixed and kneaded until they reach a stretchy consistency. Mozzarella is made of cow or water buffalo milk (the water buffalo variety is called mozzarella di bufala campana), and is a mild, delicate, sweet white cheese. In the United States, it comes in two varieties: high-moisture or fresh (very soft and often packaged in water) and low moisture (dried more for firmness and better for pizza). Provolone is another pasta filata cheese.

Many other factors affect the taste of cheese, such as the temperature of the milk or curd, whether the curds are pressed (and how hard), the way the rind is treated (washed or scraped, brined or dry salted), or aging conditions (humidity, length of time, bandaged or waxed). So, as you can see, the creation of your own distinctive cheese is well within reach.


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