The History of Swiss Cheese

Stone Age hunters, so the story goes, discovered whitish gelatinous lumps in the stomach of the captured young ruminants. The young animals had drunk their mother's milk shortly before. In the stomach of the prey animals, the milk fermented into rennet curd. So this was the first "cheese experience" of our ancestors and the product was probably appreciated as a special treat thousands of years ago.


Finds from the Neolithic period prove that cattle breeding was already practised in the area of today's Confederation. It is therefore likely that people who used animal milk were also looking for a way to preserve this rapidly perishable but important food.


Foto by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

For centuries, cottage cheese in particular was made from sour milk. The hard cheese tradition came to the Alpine regions thanks to the Romans. "Swiss" cheese was first mentioned in the first century by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder: he described the "Caseus Helveticus", the cheese of the Helvetians, who at that time settled the territory of present-day Switzerland. The first medieval source that bears witness to cheese production dates from 1115 from the Pays d'Enhaut in the former county of Gruyère. In 1273, the Burgdorf Handfeste also refers to the production of cheese in the Emmental.


Until the early Middle Ages, the inhabitants of our region were largely self-sufficient. The Alpine valleys were only settled as far as grain could be cultivated. In the Alps and Pre-Alps, dairy farming was always predominant. And wherever milk was produced, it also had to be preserved. Butter, Ziger, curd and cheese were produced. With the increasing efficiency of the transport system, more distant Alpine valleys could also be settled. As a result of this new settlement, the traditional "mush" (mostly cabbage vegetables or grain mush) was displaced as the main food. Cheese took its place. It was called "d'Spys", the food, without further ado.


In the young Confederation, cheese was not only the main food but also as common a means of payment as money. It was customary to pay craftsmen and day labourers, even the priest's salary, "in cheese and gelt". Even outside the Confederation, cheese was welcome instead of money. So the alpine dairymen lined their cheese wheels over the Alpine passes to Italy and traded them for spices, wine, chestnuts and rice. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Alpine dairymen brought their surplus cheese down to the valley to sell it. However, the so-called "market compulsion" obliged them to bring their goods to the markets themselves, as the "Fürkauf", the intermediate trade, was not welcomed by the authorities. As the cheese trade grew, however, the intermediary trade could no longer be prohibited. The cheese trader became necessary as a link between the dairyman and the buyer. He possessed what the alpine dairyman lacked: storage space, capital, sales know-how and the customer network. Even in the 18th century, the cheese trader brought canvas and cloth, as well as coffee and tobacco, to alpine huts and farmhouses in exchange for the cheeses.


At that time, the same basic hard cheese recipe was used throughout Switzerland. The local differences in the cheeses arose because of the different size of the alps and different treatment during the ripening period. The more cows that summered on an alp, the larger the cheese loaves that could be produced. Even then, however, individual basic forms of hard cheese production emerged that are still typical today:

In the 18th century, more and more consumers demanded hard cheese because of its longer shelf life. Even then, the greater the demand, the more important the position of the producer. Producers were soon no longer just poor "cow Swiss" or shepherds. At that time, the opinion still prevailed that transportable cheese could only be produced on the Alps. Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg was of a different opinion and set up an experimental cheese dairy on his Hofwil estate in 1805. Here Fellenberg proved that good cheese could also be made in the lowlands. In 1815, the lord of the castle Rudolf Emanuel von Effinger built a cheese dairy in Kiesen near Thun, which became the first cooperative Emmental village cheese dairy in the valley. At first, people in Switzerland turned up their noses at Emmentaler from the new talc cheese dairies. Nevertheless, cheese production throughout Switzerland increasingly shifted to the valley (or the Mittelland). From 1832 onwards, for example, more and more talc cheese dairies were established in Fribourg. The alpine cheese dairy lost its supremacy within a short time. Some alpine dairymen became cheese-makers in the numerous village cheese dairies that sprang up. Others bought a low-lying alp and became settled mountain farmers. Still others moved abroad, especially to the European East and North America, where they built cheese dairies and produced mainly Emmentaler. This led to the fact that the name "Emmentaler" could no longer be protected for the large-perforated cheese from Switzerland as early as the end of the 19th century.


In 1834, the canton of Bern alone exported 22,882 hundredweight of cheese. "The great age of cheese", during which many farmers and entrepreneurs were seized by a veritable cheese fever - similar to the Californian gold rush - had begun.


Foto by Alexander Maasch on Unsplash

Hastily and speculatively, much fortune was invested in the cheese trade. Although the enormous production of Swiss cheese found good sales at home and abroad, sales difficulties and price fluctuations began to make themselves felt from 1875 onwards, driving numerous farmers, cheese-makers and exporters to ruin. In the ensuing depression, the industry came to its senses and realised that quality was of the utmost importance. The farmer who supplied the milk needed a thorough knowledge of feeding and housing. Dairy schools that had just been established gave the cheesemaker the opportunity to improve the quality of his products. Traders also said goodbye to the bad habit of reserving the full-fat cheese for export and selling the lean cheese domestically due to the growing demand for butter. At that time, the Swiss population had every reason to complain that the more expensive and better cheese was going abroad. Today, Swiss cheeses are available everywhere in the same quality and are popular all over the world.


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