The Sordid History of Swiss Cheese

300 B.CSomewhere in what is now Switzerlandthree Celts make camp for the night in the dark of a pine forest. One snaps branches from a nearby tree while others empty milk from crude hide bladders into a small wooden bucket. One pine branch becomes a spit to hold the bucket, the other branch a stirring rod. They stir the curds and nod approvingly to one another at the smell. They are making Swiss cheese, long before the birth of Switzerland, or even Julius Caesar, and some 2300 years before the grand opening of Foods For Living.

When Julius Caesar did come to power, Rome was already a monolithic power, but Jules would take the idea of imperialism and run with it in an unprecedented way. By this time, cheese was already a big deal. The “barbarian” tribes of Gaul and their ilk had long been making soft cheeses. Rome was ahead of the game in that regard, using rennet (a complex of enzymes made in the stomach of ruminant animals) to make hard, age-friendly cheeses. As Rome adopted its own cheese-making culture (wealthy Romans often had a dedicated cheese kitchen), it was also stomping through the known world. The cheese traveled with the legions, who in turn ate local cheeses, and much cheese was enjoyed all around, even if things otherwise were less splendid.

Nevertheless, the barbarians could only make the softest of cheeses, if one were to grant these fireside bucket curds the status of cheese at all. Says Roman scholar Pliny the Elder:

“It is a remarkable circumstance that the barbarous nations which subsist on milk for so long have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it; and yet they understand how to thicken milk and from there form an acrid kind of liquid with a pleasant flavor.”

I love that guy.

The Swiss, or rather the people who lived in what’s now Switzerland, had been farming the land since at least 5300 B.C. No one knows when exactly they began stirring interesting additions into their milk, but they probably started using rennet sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries. Apparently, it took about fifteen centuries for Roman cheese technology to reach Switzerland—or else a dash of calf stomach was just a hard sell, and they were slow to cave.

By the mid-1500s, Swiss cheese was very much a thing, given as wedding gifts, and revered around Europe. It should be noted this second that “Swiss cheese” is what we call Swiss cheese, but the Swiss, being Swiss, make many cheeses, and do not call them all “Swiss cheese.” What we know as “Swiss cheese” is called Emmental in Europe.

In reality, there have been over a thousand varieties of Swiss cheese. But, as Americans, our familiarity with Swiss cheese begins with Emmental and ends with Gruyere. Why?

Enter the world of the Swiss Cheese Illuminati.

At the dawn of World War I, concerns about food supplies became paramount. The Association of Swiss Cheese Export Firms was established by the Swiss government, and given sole authority over who could export Swiss cheese and who could not.  Later, the ASCEF became the Swiss Cheese Union; it had exclusive control over the entire Swiss dairy industry, which was totally fine and caused no problems or controversy. Just kidding. Predictably, many were unhappy with their increasingly draconian stewardship of Swiss cheese.

The Swiss Cheese Union expanded their reach into quality control as well as export rights monitoring. They were determined to bring Swiss cheese back to its pre-war glory, and plug any holes in the country’s cheese reputation.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when industrial technology had increased the scale and, accordingly, the export side of the Swiss cheese industry. By this point, there was a labyrinthine web of government control, subsidy, and delegation surrounding the cheese making, milk, and cheese trading industries, all of whom were back in some way by the Cheese Union (which was still a pseudo-government body).

As the Cheese Union strove to keep the industry afloat and maintain quality, rigorous standards were introduced. These standards included shaving down the available variety of cheeses for manufacture into just 14 varieties. Of those 14, only a couple were actually, truly endorsed for graded manufacture and export. You can probably guess which two of the thousand Swiss cheeses those were: yup, Emmental and Gruyere. A third, lesser-known-abroad cheese, Sbrinz, was also endorsed and marketed by the Swiss Cheese Union, but that’s it. All the other cheeses would have to find their way from the farmers themselves to customers abroad. In a pre-internet age, that was tough.

Swiss cheese did benefit from the “Starbucks effect,” however. The cheese was of uniform quality anywhere you encountered it. There is comfort in consistency.

The Swiss Cheese Union was huge. It had offices in downtown NYC, and it was essentially an arm of the Swiss government. It blanketed American magazines and newspapers with adverts assuring people they could rely upon (and only upon) officially-endorsed Swiss cheese to be amazing. As a result, the Swiss cheese industry boomed, despite being pared abroad into 2 or 3 “endorsed” varieties.

But every super-successful, influential organization eventually has its Wolf of Wall Street moment. The Swiss Cheese Union’s came in 1996, when its practice of taking bribes and playing fast and loose with trade laws was finally revealed to the world. If you can read it, you can even take in a Swiss-language scandal story here about the Union selling processed cheese to some Italians (and mislabeling it) while accepting some bribes on the side.

The World Trade Organization got a bee in its bonnet about all this. There was the requisite scandal, and in 1999, the Cheese Union was rendered asunder by the Swiss government.

These days, Swiss cheese makers are back in top, pre-Union form. There are a few hundred varieties of Swiss cheese available these days, all marketed by the cheese makers themselves. Thousands of years of cheese innovation and cross-cultural mashups almost got waylaid for keeps by a state run cartel. (Well, I guess that did happen for about 85 years.) But all’s well that ends well. Go eat some weird Swiss cheese and celebrate freedom.

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