Emmental: Now that’s a Big Cheese!

Yesterday I shared a picture I took of my friend Chelsea with a cheese that weighs more than she does. It was actually the second of two such cheeses that she was preparing for the sales floor, so it goes without saying that Chelsea is a BOSS.

That cheese behemoth was a French Emmentaler, or Emmental Francais, specifically one from the caves of Hervé Mons. Weighing in at 180 pounds, this little buddy is the biggest cheese in our shop. I will call him Édouard.

Much like a hermit, Édouard lived in a cave for much of his life. Once he had gotten nice and leathery on the outside, and had reached peak perfection on the inside, he was exported to the US, subjected to customs and maybe FDA inspections, delivered to a warehouse, and finally selected for eventual slaughter and trucked to our store.

Édouard is currently on display, covered in the remains of the first Emmental Français that Chelsea attacked yesterday (we can call her Françoise if you want). But eventually Édouard will be uncovered, cleaned off with a nice bath of cheese brine, and then we will use a double-handled cheese wire to essentially let him cut himself in half.

emmental-3If you’ve never seen someone cut into a 180-pound wheel of cheese, you need to make it happen. It is quite the show.

Édouard and Françoise make up just one example of Emmentaler. Classified as a Swiss-style cheese, or better as an Alpine Cheese, Emmental is famous for its holes. Called “eye holes,” these big gaps throughout the cheese are created by bacteria called Propionibacterium freudenreichii essentially getting really gassy during the aging process. Emmentaler is THE holey Swiss cheese. But you just can’t call it “Swiss.”

Why? Because it isn’t always Swiss.

As I am in the process of pointing out, there is not only Swiss Emmental, but also French Emmental—and there is also Bavarian Emmental and an American variant. The difference, like that among many other types of cheeses, is where the cheese is made. The place where a cheese is made—particularly where the cows are from and what they are eating—influences the flavor of the cheese (terroir), as well as its cultural and economic significance.

Swiss Emmental is more famous than French Emmental, but French Emmental is perceived by many cheese nerds (like Steven Jenkins in his “Cheese Primer”) to be superior. One reason why French Emmental is less well-known than its Swiss sister is likely that there are so many more famous French cheeses (Brie? Camembert? Pont Leveque? Bucheron? The list goes on). How many famous cheeses from Switzerland can you actually name?

What the different variations on Emmental have in common is the process used to make them. Traditionally, the milk is collected during the summer while the cows are at pasture in the various alps.

The term “Alp” actually refers to the different altitude levels at which cows are brought to graze in the mountains—the altitude gets higher from spring to mid-summer as the cows are taken up the mountain, and then lower as the herders begin to bring the cows down to the valleys in the fall.

The milk is cooked in huge copper vats. The resultant curd is cut and pressed into giant wheels (generally 175 to 220 pounds), which are then aged in chalet caves until they are brought down to sell.

If you’re looking for a good French (or Swiss) Emmental, you want to be sure that it is made from raw milk, and that it is actually made from Alpine milk. That’s how you know it’s a true Emmental, and not some industrial imposter cheese masquerading as our big Alpine sweetheart.

The flavor of a French Emmental should be nutty and fruity, a little bit sweet, and definitely buttery. The paste (that’s what we call the part you eat. Gross, right?) should be a little bit chewy, but silky.

Emmental Français can be a stand-alone nosh on a cheese plate, but it’s also a fantastic melter. Try it in a grilled cheese sandwich, in fondue, as a raclette substitute, on your cheeseburger, or shredded over hot potatoes.

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