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The Emmental: Where time has stood still

The Emmental region is where the traditional and modern come together. It is home to the most famous of Swiss cheeses, and the sights and sounds have come to epitomise the country.

There are green rolling hills framed by mountain peaks rising in the distance, centuries' old farmhouses surrounded by cows adorned with decorative bells, and pristine rivers.

The region is quite insular, protected by the mountains and hills. A short detour through the countryside reveals a land and people seemingly unchanged by time.

The tiny roads work their way around the farmhouses in quaint villages undeserving of their tongue-twisting names; Heimiswil, Rüegsbach, Schaufelbuhl. Each turn inevitably leads through someone's garden or vegetable patch.

Dandelions, poppies and buttercups sway in the breeze. The tinkle of cowbells is carried by the clear mountain air and mingles with the sounds of the rushing waters of the Emmen river.

The smells wafting out of many of the farmhouses, including those in the village of Arni, tell a different story.

"Everything is locally produced here in Arni," explains Karl Schilt, an exporter of Emmentaler cheese. "There are 24 small-scale dairy farmers who bring their milk twice a day to one of his suppliers, Andreas Bigler.

Bigler is a third generation cheese maker and is convinced that the more locally the cheese is produced, the higher the quality. On this day, Bigler and Schilt talk about a sick cow belonging to one of farmers. Taking quality control into his own hands, the farmer decides not to deliver its milk.

Emmentaler cheese is soft in texture and smooth like velvet. It has a distinctive nutty taste.

But most Emmentaler found on grocers' shelves is not made by people like Andreas Bigler.

A show dairy in nearby Affoltern puts modern cheese-making methods on display besides the traditional.

A tour takes visitors past a large vat positioned above an open fire. The process of heating vast quantities of milk, adding bacteria, and the cooling and reheating process is a labour of love.

Today, as the show dairy reveals, the process is largely mechanised.

Modern or traditional, Emmentaler cheese is full of holes. According to Karl Schilt, a cheese-maker has to be good with a gun to get those holes in the right places.

Time has not stood still in the Emmental, despite appearances and the story-telling abilities of locals like Schilt.

by Samantha Tonkin


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