In the Swiss valley that’s the home of the famous ‘holey’ Emmental, Vijaya Pratap says cheese

It is a setting right out of a fairytale. I am in the beautiful Emme Valley in the canton of Berne in Switzerland with rolling hills and green meadows filled with yellow and white flowers that sway in the breeze; riding in a horse carriage, pulled by two robust horses. The horseman is dressed in a traditional Swiss embroidered shirt, a cute little boy in similar attire next to him. The rhythmic horse trot is occasionally broken by the gentle sound of cow bells. Healthy and plump Swiss cows graze contentedly.

This is Emmental cheese country, the cheese with the many holes. The Affoltern show dairy is in the centre of Emme Valley, approximately 11 km east of Burgdorf, a beautiful area between the Alpine foothills and the Jura Mountains.

Karl Schild warmly welcomes us, sporting a bright red vest with an eye-catching emblem of a man holding a piece of Emmental. He is our cheese guide for the day.

Emmental is the original Swiss cheese, creamy coloured and made of cow’s milk with its characteristic large holes. It originated in this alley, although it has been duplicated by many nations. Its large holes and the creamy, nutty flavour have made Emmental a global favourite. It melts extraordinarily well, making it a popular choice for grilled sandwiches and au gratins.

Emmental can be traced back to the 12th century, originally produced only in summers high up on the mountains, in amounts just enough for the farmers and their families and as tithes to their landowners. The first cheese dairy opened in 1815 and spread this King of cheeses across Switzerland. Very little has changed in the production in the past 100 years, in spite of mechanisation and process improvements. Strict production guidelines, quality controls and environmental directives are the key to its success.

Appellation of Controlled Origin or AOC is an official Swiss certification that covers traditional products that have a historical link to their place of origin and are manufactured using techniques passed down through generations. Hence, Emmantaler AOC.

We follow Karl and find a gigantic container filled with ivory coloured milk that is being mechanically mixed. “Milk of only four breeds of cows — Brown Swiss, Simmental, Swiss Black Pied and Eringer — are used,” says Karl, and each cow yields nearly 20 litres of milk per day, with 12 litres making one kilo of cheese.

Emmental cows eat only fresh grass and hay. They are never fed silage. During summers, when they graze in the pastures, they dine on natural herbs. The average dairy farmer owns only about 20 cows, which allows him to care for each animal better, resulting in top quality milk.

Only fresh, unpasteurised, local milk is used to make Emmentaler AOC. Karl tells us the process. The milk is heated, inoculated with bacteria, allowed to curdle, and then pressed into extremely large cheese moulds to make the cheese wheels, some of which weigh up to 100 kilos. We see men handling huge blocks of cheese at various stages. Karl says the turning is done manually. Looks like it needs enormous strength!

In the cheese cellars, which are temperature and humidity controlled, we find the cheese curing. The bacteria generates a great deal of carbon dioxide, which is trapped by the thick rind on the outside, causing the cheese to form the distinctive large holes, what Karl calls “tears in the eyes”. Typically, Emmental is aged for at least four months, often longer. Mild Emmental is four months old, while mature is eight months and fully matured 12 months old. All Emmentals are matured in dry cheese cellars except for the cave-aged Emmentaler, which is matured for 12-14 months, half of it spent in a stone cave. The more mature the cheese, the darker the rind. Karl tells us that the younger cheese goes well with white wine, while older ones go better with red.

We follow Karl to a herdsman’s cottage that dates to 1741, where cheese is being made the old-fashioned way, over an open fire. There is a massive cauldron of fresh milk boiling over the fire, while alongside a cheese block is in the making. It is soft cheese, and not pressed for long. We can take it home. Karl gives me the just cut edges from the big circle. It is soft and delicious.

Emmental has high butter-fat content and a fruity, slightly herbal aroma. At the end of the tour, Karl offers us three varieties to taste — young, mature and old. He asks us which one we like best, and when we say we like all three, he has a smug smile on his face. After all, it is Emmental, the very best.