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15 facts you may not have known about Swiss cheese

The ultimate symbol of Swissness, cheese is a venerated commodity in Switzerland. The Local looks at the facts behind the Swiss cheese industry.

15 facts you may not have known about Swiss cheese
Photo: Switzerland Cheese Marketing
1. According to industry figures, in 2016 some 186,756 tons of cheese was eaten in Switzerland, that’s just over 22kg per person, 560g more than the previous year.
 
2. While the Swiss are undoubtedly big cheese fans, they don’t eat as much as some other countries, including Germany, Cyprus, Iceland, Denmark and Finland who all surpass Switzerland for per capita cheese consumption. Unsurprisingly, the French are world cheese-eating champions, munching through 26.8kg per person every year according to 2015 figures.
 
3. There are more than 450 varieties of Swiss cheese, and nearly half the milk produced in Switzerland is turned into cheese.
 
4. The top-produced variety of Swiss cheese is Le Gruyère, of which more than 28,500 tons was produced in 2015. Perhaps surprisingly, mozzarella is second, followed by Emmentaler, séré (the Swiss-French word for fromage frais) and Raclette.
 
Emmentaler, with its distinctive holes, is a favourite. Photo: Switzerland Cheese Marketing.
 
5. The Swiss favour homegrown cheeses by far, however 31 percent of cheese consumed in the country in 2016 was imported. That's up from 23 percent ten years ago, partly because of the strong franc. Italian cheese is the most popular import, followed by French and German cheeses.
 
6. Around a third of Swiss cheese is exported. Emmentaler – the distinctive holey cheese also known as Emmental – is the most exported Swiss cheese, with Le Gruyère a close second. 
 
7. According to industry body Switzerland Cheese Marketing, Emmentaler destined for exportation is produced according to national preferences. For example, the Italians are partial to plenty of holes in their Emmentaler, while the French prefer it sans trous. Who knew?
 
8. Germany is the biggest guzzler of Swiss cheese, receiving just under half of all Swiss cheese exports. Italy takes 16 percent, the US 13 percent and France seven percent.
 
9. In the past ten years fromage frais and soft and semi-soft cheeses have become increasingly popular, while sales of hard cheese have decreased slightly. Sheep and goats cheese have also grown in popularity.
 
10. Ten Swiss cheeses carry the AOP label (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), which means the product is entirely made in its region of origin. Among these are Emmentaler, Le Gruyère, L’Etivaz, Raclette de Valais, Tête de Moine and Vacherin Mont-d’Or. Another label, IGP (Indication Geographique Protégée) means that at least one step in the production process must have been carried out in the region of origin.
 
Cheese-making, the traditional way. Photo: Swiss Tourism
 
11. Lactose intolerant? Some hard Swiss cheeses including Le Gruyère and Emmentaler don’t contain any lactose, since it’s broken down in the production process. Others, including Appenzeller and Raclette de Valais, contain low levels and are well tolerated by some lactose-intolerant people.
 
12. According to Switzerland Cheese Marketing the holes in Emmentaler are made by bacteria which transform the lactose into carbon dioxide and create air pockets. However a 2015 study by Swiss agriculture body Agroscope countered this, saying the holes were caused by tiny bits of hay present in the milk. 
 
13. Many Swiss hard cheeses – such as Le Gruyère, Emmentaler, Sbrinz – are made with raw, unpasteurized milk since the enzymes and bacteria they contain produce flavours in the cheese that pasteurized milk cannot achieve, particularly in the maturation process. Pasteurized cheeses – such as mozzarella – therefore have a milder flavour and are typically eaten when 'young'.
 
14. Hard cheeses including Le Gruyère and Emmentaler are ready to eat after a minimum four months’ maturation period, achieving full maturity after seven to 12 months. Sbrinz is best eaten after two to three years of maturing in the cheese cellar.
 
15. If a cheese is marked fromage d’alpage/Alpkäse, it means it was produced directly on the mountain pastures in the summer months only. Many Swiss farmers take their cows up to the pastures in spring, and return them in the autumn. During the months of summer the cheese is made in the traditional manner on the pastures. This gives the cheese a character and flavour that’s particular to its region and the herbs and flowers that the cows have been munching on. 
 
Happy cows on the alpine pastures in the summer. Photo: Switzerland Cheese Marketing

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FOOD & DRINK

You are not Swiss until you try these seven weird foods

Switzerland is not exactly known for innovative cuisine but for hearty and, some say, uninspiring food. But can some of the country’s dishes be qualified as ‘weird’?

You are not Swiss until you try these seven weird foods

Unlike its neighbours France and Italy, Switzerland’s culinary tradition is relatively plain.

After all, how many foreigners would actually say “I am going to Switzerland for the food”?

Still, don’t rule out some surprises on the culinary front. Whether you consider these dishes as ‘weird’ or just very unappetising depends mostly on how adventurous you are and how solid your stomach is.

So let’s begin.

The Berner Zungenwurst (Bernese tongue sausage)

Some of the wackiest foods have a regional flavour — literally and figuratively.

One of them is a traditional “tongue sausage” from Bern.

A cookbook from 1835 states that two or three pig tongues should be used as ingredients, along with meat and blood from pork and beef. What’s not to like?

These days, however, the tongue has been phased out, but the name remains. Contemporary cookbooks call for Zungenwurst to be made from pork and beef meat, along with crackling and spices. 

In 2019, Zugenwurst achieves EU protected status, which prevents imitators from reproducing the sausage, unless they do so under a different name.

If you can get over its appearance, you might actually enjoy it.

Photo: Photo: Tamorlan, CC BY-SA 2.5/.

READ MORE: Three things to know about Switzerland’s protected ‘blood tongue sausage’

Saucisse de choux

West of Bern, in Vaud, another sausage reigns: the so-called “cabbage sausage”.

No tongue or blood here; this traditional smoked sausage is made from white cabbage, pork and bacon, and eaten boiled with potatoes and leeks — another typical Vaud dish called “papet”.

According to legend, the origin of this sausage dates back to the year 879, when the family of the Emperor of Germany stayed in the Vaud town of Orbe for several weeks.

As the meat ran out, locals mixed cabbage with the sausage meat to fill the stuffing. The smoking stage appeared in the Middle Ages, when it was realised that by smoking the meat, it could be kept longer.

Cenovis

Unless you grew up eating Marmite in the UK or Vegemite in Australia, it may take you a whIle to develop your taste buds to accept, and actually like, Cenovis —  the dark brown paste made from yeast extract.

This very salty paste is spread on a slice of buttered bread.

READ MORE: Six common myths about Swiss food you need to stop believing

How did this idea originate in the first place?

According to the company website, “it was in the mind of a visionary brewer from the Rheinfelden region in the canton of Basel-Country that the idea of using the precious yeasts from the production of beer germinated”.

Spiny thistle

If you think this plant is unfit for human consumption, Genevans will disagree with you.

That’s because cardon épineux genevois is not only a local specialty, but it is also  the first vegetable to be included in the official Swiss registry of origin.

It can be eaten, for example, as a gratin — grilled with (Swiss) cheese on top — to accompany meat or fish.

First consumed around Europe in the 16th century where it was widely cultivated, these days canton of Geneva is the only place that still produces thorned thistle.

Genevans make a dish out of this plant. Photo by Pixabay

READ MORE: Ten varieties of cheese you should be able to identify if you live in Switzerland

Rivella

That Switzerland has its own beverage is not in itself unusual (and certainly not weird) — after all, it does have plenty of cheese and chocolate of its own.

What is slightly odd, however, is that this carbonated drink is made from milk whey.

Perhaps it is because Swiss cows produce too much milk and this surplus had to be used somehow — we don’t know. What we do know is that in 1950 two men, Roberth Barth and the biologist Hans Süsli, got together in Zurich and used a recipe initially conceived to produce a whey beer to create a soft drink that tastes a bit like a mixture of ginger ale and bubble tea.

As is the case with Cenovis, you probably have to train your taste buds (or trick them) to like it.

Chestnut paste tarts

To the untrained eye, these little tarts, called vemicelles, look like worms piled on top.

In fact, in Latin “vermiculi” actually means “worms”. But if you can get past the appearance and the name, these pastries are actually quite delicious.

And making them from scratch (rather than buying them ready made) is almost an art form: traditional recipe calls for about half a kilo of chestnuts.

An incision has to be made in each chestnut before boiling. Then, chestnuts should be shelled, simmered with milk and sugar before being pressed through a special machine to create the long “worms” of chestnut paste.

Photo by Robert Patti on Unsplash

Last but not least…cholera!

OK, what is actually weird about this dish is not its content  but the truly off-putting name.

There is a reason for that: this dish was invented during the cholera outbreak in the 1830s when people were scared to leave their homes and made a pie with whatever leftovers they had on hand: potatoes, onion, apples, bacon, leek and cheese.

As far as we know, this is the only food still in existence that was created out of necessity during a health crisis. To this day, there is no dish called Covid (although all of you budding chefs out there may see that as a challenge). 

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