It's a Whopper

Edelweiss

This cheese is big. No, it’s ginormous. It’s Edelweiss Creamery’s Emmentaler, one of only two Swiss-style cheeses still made in the U.S. in the traditional massive format.
 
I learned a few things about Emmentaler recently from Bruce Workman, a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker and owner of Edelweiss:
 

  • Edelweiss Emmentaler and Ohio’s Guggisberg Premium Swiss are likely the largest cheeses made in America, weighing in at 180 to 200 pounds. That’s more than twice the heft of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It takes two people to flip the Edelweiss cheese, and each wheel has to be flipped weekly. (No wonder Workman was at the back doctor when I called him recently.) Over nine months of aging, wheels lose 10 percent of their weight. 
     
  • Emmentalers (and Gruyère and many other alpine-style cheeses) are made in a copper kettle for a reason. Copper heats gently and evenly, whereas a stainless steel vat often has hot spots. More important, says Workman, “the cultures we use like the copper oxide. It helps impart that nuttiness.” He estimates that he would have to use 20 times as much culture to get the same flavor from curd in a stainless vat.
     
  • Most American Swiss producers switched from wheels to rindless blocks because processors and deli owners wanted a cheese they could put on a slicer. “How do you cut a sandwich-sized piece out of a wheel?” says Workman.
     
  • Processors also nudged producers to make Emmentaler with smaller eyes so block weights would be more uniform. Authentic Emmentaler should have some eyes the size of a quarter, says Workman. Nowadays, most American Swiss has nickel- or pea-sized eyes thanks to shortened ripening time. A slice without eyes is called a “blind” slice, by the way, and competition judges consider that a defect.
 Big is Beautiful: Workman with Emmentaler in progress

Big is Beautiful: Workman with Emmentaler in progress

  • What qualities does an Emmentaler cheesemaker look for? “I like to see two or three eyes on a plug,” says Workman. (A plug is a sample drawn from a whole wheel with a device that resembles an apple corer.) “I want the eyes to be shiny and the paste to have no cracks. I like a fresh, sweet smell, not too much acid and a hazelnut note when I eat the cheese.” Other experts have told me they like to see “weeping eyes,” with some moisture in the holes.
     
  • Many of the giant Swiss producers sell their Emmentaler too young, says Workman. They release at four to five months (four months is the legal minimum), when the texture is still rubbery.
     
  • Don’t confuse supermarket Swiss cheese, made in a block and matured in an airless plastic bag, with a natural-rinded wheel like Emmentaler. “People think they don’t like Swiss cheese, but that’s because they’re used to Swiss cured in a bag,” says Workman. “Any gas given off goes back into the cheese; it doesn’t get to escape. A cheese that’s shelf-cured gets to breathe and that’s what changes your flavor profile.”
     
  • A key difference between Swiss Emmentaler and the Edelweiss wheels: the Swiss cheesemakers use raw milk. Workman stopped using raw milk last year. “Everybody’s under the hot lamp with the government,” says the cheesemaker. “I’m a small guy. I’d rather be off the radar than in the spotlight.”

Look for Edelweiss Emmentaler at Cheese Plus and Canyon Market in San Francisco and at Sunshine Foods in St. Helena. Or purchase direct from the creamery’s online store. A malt-forward beer, like Anchor Bock, would be a good match for this nutty cheese.