The Swiss Terroir

Terroir as a Concept

Environment and People

Altitude, whether lower or higher, is crucial, as well as a sunny slope, a valley, access to a stream, or a specific herb. In the Swiss Alps, plants, animals, and people live in harmony with the demands of nature for adaptation, a mixture of symbiosis and direct power struggle.

The nutritional content of plants and the characteristics of animals have evolved over a long time to survive in the sometimes harsh alpine environment, which can be demanding and difficult to access, yet simultaneously life-giving and stunningly beautiful. Here, dairy farmers and local cheese producers have, for generations, produced perhaps the world’s best cheeses. The high quality of the ingredients, the proximity between farmer and dairy, and, not least, the spirit of innovation result in unique quality and broad variation.

Milk at the Center

Raw milk takes center stage in our products. But also, the fresh alpine air, the lush meadows with alpine herbs, the clear water in the streams, and, especially, the unique soil, the terroir – everything contributes to the taste and character of the milk. The milk is treated gently, with respect, and the cows are only fed with fresh hay and without silage. When it comes to creating world-class cheese, it’s actually simple and obvious, but still so difficult. Like everything else, there are no shortcuts.

Terroir as a Principle

So, what is meant by Terroir? For us, it is a crucial factor, so important that it is part of our name. As a principle, we use it to describe what makes a cheese unique: everything from the human factor with tradition and craftsmanship, the altitude affecting fauna and the composition of pastures, the microclimate in that specific location, the taste and composition of the milk, which in Switzerland is irreplaceable because it is not pasteurized, affinage, which the Swiss believe accounts for half of the flavor experience, etc. In short, everything that makes a product unique and irreplaceable in an increasingly global world. For who can fall in love with a polished, adapted, and easily uninteresting character? It’s individual identity and expression that attract, both in cheese and in people.

History of cheese in Switzerland

Stone Age hunters, at least according to history, discovered whitish, gelatinous clumps in the stomachs of young ruminants that had consumed their mother’s milk shortly before being captured. The milk had, through fermentation, transformed into a kind of cheese mass in the prey’s stomach. This was probably our ancestors’ first experience of “cheese,” and thousands of years ago, the product was undoubtedly valued as a special delicacy.

Archaeological evidence from the Neolithic Age suggests that livestock was already being raised in the area that now constitutes the Swiss Confederation. It is likely, therefore, that people using animal milk also tried to find a way to preserve this very delicate but crucial food.

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For centuries, curd cheese constituted the main product made from local milk. It was the Romans who introduced the tradition of hard cheese in the Alpine region. The first mention of “Swiss” cheese was made by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder during the first century: he described what he called “Caseus Helveticus,” the cheese of the Helvetians, as the Helvetians inhabited the area that now constitutes Switzerland. The first medieval source mentioning cheese production dates back to the year 1115 and originates from Pays d’Enhaut in the former county of Gruyère. The “Handfeste,” or statutes from the year 1273 in the town of Burgdorf, also refer to cheese production in the Emmental valley.

 

Until the early Middle Ages, the population in our region was almost entirely self-sufficient. Alpine valleys were inhabited only where cereal crops could be grown. The Alps and their slopes had always been dominated by dairy farms. And wherever milk was produced, it had to be preserved, meaning it was transformed into butter, Ziger (whey cheese), curd, and cheese. As the efficiency of the transport system improved, people could settle in more remote alpine valleys. This resulted in cheese replacing the traditional “mess” (mainly consisting of cabbage or crushed barley) as the main food. It was known under the simple name d’Spys, meaning “food.”

 

During the early years of the Swiss Confederation, cheese not only constituted the main staple but was also widely used as an alternative currency to money. It was common to pay craftsmen, day laborers, and even the parish priest’s salary “in cheese and money.” In fact, cheese was welcomed as a substitute for money even outside the Confederation. Alpine shepherds used to transport their cheese wheels over the mountain passes to Italy and exchange them for spices, wine, chestnuts, and rice. During the 1400s and 1500s, alpine dairy farmers brought their surplus cheese down to the valleys to sell. They were legally obligated to sell their goods at the markets because authorities frowned upon intermediaries. However, as the cheese trade grew, it became impossible to prohibit intermediaries. The cheese merchant became a necessary link between the alpine herder and the consumer. They had what the alpine herder lacked: storage space and capital, as well as marketing expertise and a customer network. As late as the 1700s, cheese makers still received linen and velvet, coffee, and tobacco for their cheese wheels in their alpine huts and farms.

 

At that time, the same basic hard cheese recipe was used throughout Switzerland. Local differences in cheeses arose due to variations in the sizes of mountain pastures and different processing methods during the maturation process. The more cows that spent the summer on mountain pastures, the larger cheese wheels could be produced. However, some of the basic methods of hard cheese production that are still typical today emerged at this time:

 

“Sbrinz” and “Gruyère de rayon” (similar to today’s L’Etivaz AOP or Saanen-Hobelkäse) were left to dry and mature for over two years, placed on edge in well-ventilated shelves to make them less fragile and more suitable for transport with pack animals. In the Gruyère area, people adhered to the original form of hard cheese and produced flat Gruyère with a washed rind. As late as the early 1700s, Emmental could hardly be distinguished from Gruyère. As a result, the French sometimes called the cheese “Gruyère d’Emmental,” a confusing name that has survived in some places until today. In the 1700s, consumer demand for hard cheese increased significantly due to its longer shelf life. Already then, it was a fact that the producer’s status was higher the greater the demand. Soon, cheese production was no longer limited to humble dairy farmers or herders. At that time, people still believed that transportable cheese could only be produced in the Alps. However, Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg disagreed and established an experimental dairy on his estate Hofwil in 1805. Fellenberg soon proved that good cheese could also be produced in lowland areas. In 1815, Rudolf Emanuel von Effinger, lord of Kiesen Castle near Thun, built a dairy in the village, which became the first cooperative dairy in the Emmental valley. Initially, the Swiss wrinkled their noses at the Emmental produced in the new dairies in the valley, but cheese production gradually moved more and more to the valley and central plateau. From 1832 onwards, for example, more and more dairies emerged in the Fribourg region valleys. The alpine dairies quickly lost their standing. Some of the alpine dairy farmers became cheese makers in the many new dairies in the villages. Others bought low-lying pastures and became settled mountain farmers. Others moved abroad, especially to Eastern Europe and North America, where they built dairies and primarily produced Emmental cheese. As a result, it was no longer possible to protect the name “Emmental” for the cheese with large holes from Switzerland from the end of the 19th century onward.

 

In 1834, the canton of Bern alone accounted for the export of 22,882 hundredweights of cheese. This marked the beginning of the “golden age of cheese,” during which many farmers and entrepreneurs were seized by a real cheese fever—similar to the California gold rush.

 

Wild, daring speculation led to fortunes being invested in the cheese trade. Although the enormous quantities of Swiss cheese produced found a ready market at home and abroad, marketing difficulties and price fluctuations became apparent, ruining countless farmers, cheese makers, and exporters. During the subsequent downturn, the industry came to its senses and realized that quality was of the utmost importance. Farmers delivering the milk needed in-depth knowledge of feeding and animal husbandry. Newly founded dairy schools provided cheese makers the opportunity to improve the quality of their products. Traders also refrained from the impropriety of reserving full-fat cheese for export and selling low-fat cheese, which was abundant due to the growing demand for butter, on the domestic market. At that time, the Swiss population had every reason to complain that the more expensive and better cheese was disappearing abroad. Today, Swiss cheese of the same excellent quality is available everywhere and can be enjoyed worldwide.

 

Source: https://www.cheesesfromswitzerland.com/sv-SE/tillverkning/ostens-historia-i-schweiz