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How Switzerland is protecting its cheeses from foreign influence

Neutral Switzerland has not been involved in any foreign wars for centuries, but lately the country has been doing battle over its cheese.

How Switzerland is protecting its cheeses from foreign influence
Swiss emmental cheese has lots of holes. Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Makers of the country’s iconic Emmental and Gruyère cheeses have been locked in legal battles to protect their product from inferior foreign imitations. 

Named after the Bern’s Emmental valley where it is produced, the Emmental cheese has a distinctly mild and nutty taste and is also the only Swiss cheese with holes, which “range from the size of cherries to the size of nuts and are formed during the maturation process”, according to Switzerland Cheese Marketing board.

In Switzerland, the Emmental is protected by an AOP — Appellation d’Origine Protégée, which means the product is entirely made in its region of origin.

This label also means the cheese must meet strict criteria, such as the size of the holes, which should ideally be between two and four centimetres in diameter.

However, the Emmental is also made in France and Germany, but Swiss producers claim foreign cheese does not meet the same exacting standards and has little to do with the original recipe.

They have been fighting for years for better protection of the brand manufactured and sold outside Switzerland, but to avail: the European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) ruled that “Emmental” doesn’t designate the geographical origin of the product, but only a certain type of cheese with holes.

This decision really cheesed the Swiss off and they filed a complaint against EUIPO’s decision with the General Court of the European Union, which will begin deliberations in September.

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

However, the Emmental is not the only Swiss cheese caught up in an international legal tangle; Gruyère suffered a similar fate.

An American court ruled in January 2022 that ‘Gruyere cheese’ does not have to be made in the Gruyères region — or even in Switzerland, for that matter —in order to bear the name. 

Swiss cheesemakers said they would appeal the US ruling, but in the meantime the verdict grates on their nerves.

“Gruyère represents a centuries-old traditional recipe, and a region of Switzerland,” an angry Philippe Bardet, director of the Association of Swiss Gruyère Producers, told Switzerland’s Blick newspaper.

“When consumers buy a Gruyère in the United States, they have no idea what awaits them”, he said. “Does the cheese have holes? What milk was it made with?”

Bardet pointed out that Swiss Gruyère producers use only raw milk from cows that eat natural food  — pasture grass in summer and hay in winter .

But in  America, “they use cheap milk”, he said. 

READ MORE: Why are Swiss angry with Americans about Gruyere cheese?

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For members


International jury reveals the ‘best’ Swiss cheese

Intense two-day deliberations are over with an expert panel crowning one cheese among hundreds of candidates as Switzerland’s finest.

International jury reveals the 'best' Swiss cheese

Let’s face it: there is no such thing as bad Swiss cheese, just as there isn’t bad Swiss chocolate.

Even if you are not fond of one variety, someone else will swear by it. So, the process of selecting the ‘best’ cheese is a matter of pitting one excellent cheese against another.

On Thursday and Friday, cheese connoisseurs did just that.

Gathered in the Valais community of Val de Bagnes for The Swiss Cheese Championships, the jury had the painstaking task of tasting more than 1,000 cheeses in 32 categories — including hard, semi-soft, rindless, and others — and rating each one on terms of its taste, appearance, aroma, and texture (and no, the size of holes was not among the criteria).

In addition to Swiss jurors, the panel also included cheese experts from the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Italy and even Japan.

The competition was tense, but by the end of the day, the jury finally revealed its ruling.

And the big cheese is….

… a Gruyère, which is recognisable by its solid yellow colour and taste that ranges from sharp to mild.

Now, if you live in Switzerland and know a thing or two about cheeses, you also know that this particular one comes from its namesake region in the canton of Fribourg. It is manufactured entirely from the milk of cows that graze the local pastures.

Cows graze in the mountain pasture in Gruyères, Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

There is also a Gruyère manufactured in France — which the Swiss look down upon — and even one from America, that the Swiss say is “not really cheese”.

A US court ruled in January 2022 that ‘Gruyere cheese’ does not have to come from the Gruyères region — or even from Switzerland, for that matter — in order to bear the name. 

READ MORE: Why are Swiss angry with Americans about Gruyere cheese?

Within Switzerland’s Gruyère region itself, there is a number of small manufacturers who produce these cheeses to the traditional, ancestral recipe in village dairies.

The one that was crowned on Friday as ‘the best” is from a dairy-cheese factory in the village of Montbovon.

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