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Hard Cheese with Eyes

Besides Organoleptic and Functional Requirements, Cheeses Need to Look Perfect Too

Volume 126, No. 35, Friday, March 1  2002

The alpine cheeses of Europe have been a great gift to all who enjoy cheese. Few consumers can appreciate how difficult it has been for the traditional cheese maker to perfect his art and the subtleties involved in the manufacture of such cheese. Add to that the good luck that comes when certain elements used combine to produce an incredible cheese, the great family of cheeses that are generically referred to as, Swiss Cheese. For this chapter I don’t wish to consider rindless Swiss, but just the cheeses from which they evolved.
There are some fundamental reasons why Swiss cheese is special and is possibly the most difficult cheese to manufacture consistently. In addition to its organoleptic and functional requirements it has the added dimension of needing to look good, as close to perfect as is possible. Swiss cheese eyes are synonymous with quality, imperfect eyes may tell a tale of poor curd handling, a foreign bacteria or unsuitable milk. 
Traditional Swiss cheese was made in the mountains in France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria and includes names such as Emmental, Comte and Gruyere. These cheeses were made in the summer and eaten during the long winter, often used in fondue style preparation. The process evolved primitively but as with all things modern, it has become more of a small factory process as practiced today. In the mountains feed was only available during the summer so small herds of cows could be taken up and would milk well on the native pasture. Visualize a cheese maker with his copper vat out in the open cooking his cheese curds, (but more likely in a hut); the cheese would be made in the small building, stored on racks, salted and turned and then carried down the mountains for further storage and maturation.
The cheeses were large, as large as 180 pounds each, with very even thickness; the diameter may vary from cheese to cheese. These large wheels would under the right conditions develop the most wonderful eyes and flavor, but like all cheese is eaten when young lacked character. Emmental is more likely to be eaten young and Gruyere when it is older, in excess of one year yields a high quality product. But why is it so special?
Again imagine the cows are milked by hand into wooden buckets, the milk is transferred to a large copper pan or vat situated over a wood fire. Rennet or a rennet paste is added to the milk, it is coagulated and cut finely into rice grain particles, the curds and whey are then gently heated to approximately 121oF, higher for Gruyere and varieties without or less eyes. The curds and whey would be stirred by hand throughout the heating process and after the heating had ceased until the cheese had the right feel. At no time did the cheese maker add a lactic culture or an eye forming culture. The natural lactic bacteria in the environment were enough to provide fermentation of lactose to lactic acid, the cheese maker then chose to heat his cheese to a higher temperature than he might have in a valley setting. This proved to be a selective process, eliminating the mesophilic (typical Cheddar) bacteria and promoting the thermophillic bacteria which would withstand the high cook temperature. Also resilient to the high cook temperature were the Propioni bacteria that were in the milk, almost certainly from the coat/skin of the milking cow. The cheese maker obviously adopted this high heat process because he was getting better results. A big part of the reason for the high cook may have been the need to make a cheese with less moisture.
He would then lift the cheese out of the vessel in a cloth and place it into a simple wooden band type mold sitting on a wooden surface. The cheese would then be pressed lightly overnight, the overnight condition permitting the slow cooling and acidification of the curd. Next day the cheese would be placed on a shelf and rubbed with salt, just enough to maintain a good rind. With luck the eye forming bacteria would grow and eyes would be formed. 
From the cheese maker’s point of view it must have been easier once he had a small factory, with stable conditions. Traditional style Emmental and Gruyere will progress through as many as three different temperatures during ripening, at some point the highest temperature will promote eye development. Finally a cooler temperature will provide a stable holding temperature. Humidity is also a variable that can lead to a greatly enhanced and more complex flavor development. The surface flora that provides beneficial development would all have come from elements of the local environment. 
How frustrating it must have been to not hear the hollow thump when a cheese was tapped with the cheese trier handle. Or the horror of too many eyes or a blow hole beneath the surface. There is a lot going on in a good Swiss style cheese no matter which version we speak of. Swiss cheese makers are among the best trained today and most knowledgeable about the cheesemaking process they perform. They have developed some uniquely useful tools to aid in the assessment of quality and we are grateful for their contribution.
Savor your next taste of 15 month Gruyere and give thought to the many interactive processes that brought this cheese to your table. •

Neville McNaughton, president of Cheez Sorce, St. Louis, MO, has many years of experience manufacturing dairy products in both New Zealand and US. He has been a judge at several cheese competitions. Neville will be writing a regular column in Cheese Reporter and will take any questions regarding cheese manufacture. You can reach him at CheezSorce@sbcglobal.netjumhoefer@wischeesemakersassn. org


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