Swiss Bliss

Hornbacher

As many cheese professionals know, Oxford University Press is in the process of compiling the first Oxford Companion to Cheese. If it’s even half as good as OUP’s corresponding works for beer (edited by Garrett Oliver) and wine (edited by Jancis Robinson), this encyclopedia will be a must-have reference.
 
I was asked to contribute some entries, including one on the Swiss Cheese Union, the powerful cartel that controlled production in Switzerland from 1914 until 1999.  I had long heard assertions that the SCU stifled innovation, but I never understood why the cartel existed or why it collapsed. The research trail led me to Paul Ueli Schilt, an executive with Mifroma USA, an importer of Swiss cheeses.
 
Schilt, who is Swiss, grew up in the dairy business; his father was a cheese exporter. So his information is anecdotal, but it’s the first account that makes sense to me.
 
According to Schilt, when World War I broke out and Swiss cheese exports tanked, the SCU emerged to keep the nation’s dairies afloat. The cartel set milk prices so farmers had guaranteed incomes, and it gave cheesemakers a guaranteed price for their wheels. Exporters were compensated by the SCU for aging the product. “Everyone had a protected margin,” says Schilt.

  Sound test: cheesemaker Michael Spycher

Sound test: cheesemaker Michael Spycher

But the SCU largely restricted production to three cheese types: Emmentaler, Gruyère and Sbrinz. If you wanted to make something else, you had to do it on the black market because you couldn’t get a permit. In later years, the SCU loosened up a little and allowed production of Raclette, Tête de Moine, Appenzeller and a handful of other styles, but they still controlled the quotas and permits.
 
“In hindsight, it was probably the stupidest thing they could do,” says Schilt. “It really killed innovation.”  It also saddled the country with mushrooming debt. After World War II, when exports resumed, Swiss cheeses were no longer competitive. The government had to step in and subsidize the difference between what the wheels were fetching on the world market and what they cost to produce.
 
The SCU eventually succumbed after new international trade agreements limited export subsidies. Its demise freed Swiss cheesemakers to produce whatever they pleased. Hornbacher (pictured in both images above) is among the superstars in this constellation of new Swiss cheeses.
 
Cheesemaker Michael Spycher operates a small creamery in the Hornbach valley. He gets raw milk from his neighbors twice a day and turns it into Raclette, Gruyère, Hornbacher and other cheeses. (His Gruyère was the 2008 World Championship Cheese.) Hornbacher bears an obvious family resemblance to Comté, Gruyère and Beaufort—the classic alpine wheels—but its intensity and creaminess are noteworthy.

  Waiting game: Hornbacher at Fritzenhaus dairy

Waiting game: Hornbacher at Fritzenhaus dairy

The 12-pound wheels of Hornbacher are matured for about a year, long enough to generate some crunchy protein crystals in the firm golden paste. But before you taste, savor the fragrance. It is huge. I smell roasted hazelnuts, brown butter, sautéed onion, aged beef. The importer describes it as reminiscent of a buttered baked potato. Bingo.
 
Hornbacher’s flavor is so concentrated that an ounce of it will satisfy. If you’re unsure of what umami tastes like, here’s your answer. Serve Hornbacher with a rich white wine, like an Alsatian Pinot Gris; a nutty dessert wine, such as an Oloroso sherry; or a malty beer. I love Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock.

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