What do potatoes and Swiss cheese have in common? They both have eyes. Some (or many) of you may not know this, but the holes in Swiss cheese are called eyes. The eyes result from bacteria creating air pockets of carbon dioxide during the aging process. The bigger the air pockets, the more mature the cheese.
The original form of Swiss cheese dates to around the 15th century in the Swiss canton (Switzerland has cantons, not states) of Bern, specifically the Emme valley or “tal” – leading to the cheese being dubbed “Emmentaler.” The huge wheels found in Switzerland, made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, weigh in at around 165 to 265 pounds each and are matured for four to 14 months, depending on whether it’s classic, Reserve or Crown Emmentaler.
The cheese wheels’ immense size started out as a tax dodge. The export taxes of the time (the Swiss started exporting Emmentaler in the early 1800s) were based on the number of wheels being exported, not the amount of cheese total, so it maximized the cheesemakers’ profit to make each wheel as large as possible.
Unless you specifically ask for Emmentaler, the Swiss you’ll get at a deli for a ham and cheese sandwich is probably a domestic version, often baby Swiss or lacy Swiss. Baby Swiss is, as its name implies, a less mature version of Emmentaler. In the mid-1800s, Swiss immigrant cheesemakers in Wisconsin wanted something smaller and more convenient than the wheels from back home, and something they could sell sooner (around 30 to 60 days). The name “Baby Swiss,” though, wasn’t coined until the 1960s as a marketing tactic by Swiss-American cheesemaker Alfred Guggisberg.
Lacy Swiss, called that because of the small, lace-like network of eyes when the cheese is cut into slices, is made with low-fat cows’ milk. Invented in 1985 by Alpine Lace Brands, it filled a need for a healthier Swiss. As well as being lower in fat, it’s also less salty than baby Swiss or Emmentaler with a light nutty taste.
Both Emmentaler and American Swiss melt beautifully. As well as in sandwiches, you can find it in quiches, sauces and paired with Gruyere (another cheese from Switzerland that has a few small holes) in fondues, though the fondue has, unfortunately, fallen out of favor in the U.S. since its heyday in the 1970s.
One wheel of Emmentaler, weighing in at around 200 pounds, takes 262 gallons of milk.