Switzerland is an ideal study tour locale for learning about cheese making and aging. In many of the small villages, there are still family operations of two or three people that make very high quality specialty cheeses. Other larger (10- 15 person) operations typically stress a varied product line, with virtually all exhibiting extensive entrepreneurial spirit and business sense. Switzerland is an eclectic combination of older and newer cheese making facilities; hand-packed Mont d’Or in the first floor of a house is not far from several multi-million dollar factories that feature touch-screen technology and modern packaging methods. Cheese aging facilities are similarly varied, with many changes based on the need for EU compliance and/or the need to become economically profitable through technological innovation.
The itinerary of the study tour is presented in the appendix. In five days, the group covered Switzerland from the Austrian Alps in the east to the French border in the west. Mr. Roth’s linguistic ability and technical expertise afforded the Americans an opportunity to ask very pointed questions in both the French and German Swiss regions, and gain valuable insight into all aspects of each operation’s business.
Of parallel interest to CBFC as a farmstead cheese-making operation were aspects of the dairy industry—those including cow, sheep, and goat husbandry. The group was able to observe a regional dairy show, and George Crave was able to tour a robotic milking operation on a 100-cow dairy farm. The driving tour of the various regions of Switzerland gave the group an appreciation of farming methods throughout the country, and stimulated further discussion on such issues as summer pasturing, preferences of dairy animals throughout various regions, and so on.
The cheese industry in Switzerland—as in the US—is in transition. For instance, after entering the European Common Market, Austria dropped many subsidies for cheese production; and the Kasekeller Bregenzerwalder cooperative responded by organizing a product and marketing approach around their unique mountain
cheeses. This included the construction of a new facility (Figure 1) that features a tasting room and viewing window to the aging room, and robotic rind washing. Affineur Alois Koch of Gonten (Figure 2) will need
to completely revamp his aging facilities by 2007 to meet EU regulations, replacing concrete side shelves with stainless steel and gravel floors with concrete. Lack of workers and the high cost of labor ($15-18/hour) in certain areas force cheese makers to adjust their workforce and increase the use of technology (as Felix Roth noted, “if the labor force is available, you’re not forced to do as much innovation”). One cheese maker hires only women as he is of the opinion that they are more methodical and better suited to the cheese making process.
Three of the factories we toured had declared bankruptcy and were under new ownership. All the new owners benefited from being able to buy equipment at pennies on the dollar (pence on the franc?) and had considerably more working space and facilities than other cheese makers.
Specialty Cheese Production
Specialty cheese production has a long tradition in Europe and markets are considerably more developed than in the US. Cheese “ripens” with age, and Europeans both understand and appreciate this. The remnants of ammonia (easily solved by allowing the cheese to breathe at room temperature before using) and the lack of shelf life make certain specialty cheeses unattractive for the American market. In the US, raw milk cheeses have a certain stigma; in Europe, they are welcomed for their flavor and character.
Even in small Swiss towns, aged cheeses such as Appenzeller or Emmentaller are cut fresh from large wheels for use in the succeeding two to three days; in the US, such cheeses are often cut and packaged inappropriately and lose their unique favors. Market organization for the specialty cheeses and products provide sufficient financial returns to keep artisanal cheese makers profitable.
The Crave cheese “caves” will need to be spaces that are technologically sound. The two most critical components to an aging facility or cheese “cave” are temperature and humidity. A coil could provide enough cooling for a small structure versus complex cooling systems seen at many of the larger aging storerooms. For humidity, larger rooms use a “sock” method to distribute humidity evenly. An older facility used piping covered with a tarp on the longest walls to ensure climate control, or ceiling pipes are used. One cheese maker also had the brine tank in his aging room to keep the relative humidity in an acceptable range.
One strategy used in Switzerland was to over-pressurize the aging room to essentially keep outside air and stray mold from coming in. There was also discussion on the question of air exchange and the merits of keeping a population of good mold in the cave environment versus having a constant level of fresh air exchange.
A number of facilities had a series of caves or facilities with varied temperatures and humidity levels.
Figure 10 shows a cabinet that keeps the cheese in a warm environment the first 24-48 hours to ensure that cultures develop; affineurs would then move the cheese to a different climate controlled environment. Much discussed as part of this aging process was the packaging used and length of time in a cooler before market distribution.
The use of different racking for aging cheeses varied considerably among affineurs (Figure 14). Many use spruce boards for longer aged cheeses; after the cheese is done aging, these boards are thoroughly washed, sterilized, and dried before re-using. Plastic trays and metal racks were often the choice of those making white mold cheeses.
(This study was conducted for the Wisconsin Dairy Artisan Research Program and funding was provided by The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection The Babcock Institute – University of Wisconsin Madison)
The Food Science Department – University of Wisconsin-Madison Dairy Business Innovation Center