Holy Cheese and Holy Men: Swiss, Irish, Japanese

“True believers may be likened to those mites in the cheese which eat their way into it, and penetrate into the centre by feeding upon all that lies in their way as they advance. We eat our way into the word of God, we live upon what we learn, tunnelling through the truth with receptive minds.” — Spurgeon

I want to draw attention to some lovely pictures of Swiss alpine cheesemaking.

There’s a website called FX Cuisine, composed by a Swiss polyglot and gourmand named François-Xavier (FX). It seems that Mr. FX likes to make food, photograph it, and write little captions for his pictures. He also like to take pictures of other people making food; and he tours around quite a bit to document European foods concocted in alarmingly enticing settings. Recently, he photographed the skinning, butchering, and whole-roasting of a wild boar, in medieval style, over an open fire in an old stone French castle. Without the fine work of Mr. FX, some of us would die without ever having seen a senescent castle dog barking at a gutted corpse of wild boar that dangles head-down from the stone wall, blood dropping among windstrewn flower petals and dust.

Some of us still might.

Mr. FX lives on Lake Geneva, so he has the chance to visit some Swiss alpine dairies as they make their summer cheeses. (Take a look at the beginning of my earlier post, “Taleggio and the ‘Foul Sloth’ of Avignon,” for some words on alpine summer cheese.) I’ve seen two of his photojournalistic pieces on this process: Swiss Alps Cheesemaking and Hard Core Swiss Vacherin Cheese. I recommend that you look at them, if only for a moment. Both entries show cheese made in gargantuan copper cauldrons over open flames; cooked, drained, and pressed all in cluttered, humble mountain chalets.

(The enormous kettles that hang from swiveling wooden mini-cranes were around, like most of the technology you’ll see in those pieces, long before the industrial era.)

I don’t expect that cheese made on this scale is exported to the U.S. But maybe. There’s a lot more to Swiss cheese than I know about; but I do know some things. Here they are:


Steve Jenkins, in his Cheese Primer, tells us that “the people who made the earliest Swiss cheeses over a thousand years ago were called Sennen, meaning ‘mountain people.'” Despite a little effort — all I have to give — I’ve not been able to corroborate the existence of this ancient cheesemaking people called Sennen. Though his book is impressively long, sometimes I just can’t trust Steve Jenkins. Not surprised.

(I was able to confirm the existence of ancient ascetics called sennen; but they lived in Japan, and I doubt they invented Swiss cheese. Who knows. According to The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English, the sennen [also spelled “sennin,” and probably a lot of other transliterations] are wise old men of the mountains that have attained, by discipline and meditation, magical powers and immortality.)

Maybe a sennen, maybe nobody.

Maybe a sennen, maybe nobody.


Another source, Judy Ridgway’s Cheese Companion: The Connoisseur’s Guide, makes the more extraordinary and verifiable claim that

Many centuries before the birth of Christ, the Celtic ancestors of the Swiss used to make cheese in rough vessels slung over wood fires, cutting and stirring the curds with branches of pine. The resultant cheese had a tough rind which was impenetrable enough to thwart the ravages of both time and the weather.

The Celtic Helvetians had settled into what-is-now-Switzerland by the 2nd century BC; and a couple of centuries later Pliny the Elder wrote of their cheese, caseus helveticus. So maybe Ridgway alludes to them. Many consider Pliny’s comment the first historical reference to Swiss cheese; and many consider that specific cheese to have been what is now called Sbrinz.

Sbrinz is a piquant and powerful cheese, mighty enough that Middle Age doctors, doing the best they could, prescribed doses of it to cure illness — as some Russians still prescribe vodka. (Max MacCalman, author of a more recent Connoisseur’s Guide to cheese, compares your first taste of Sbrinz to “first beholding the Grand Canyon” because of the cheese’s ability to “cause sensory overload.” I haven’t been able to buy Sbrinz yet myself — I might have to order some on the Internet — but consider me somewhat skeptical: or less of a cheese connoisseur than Max: or more of a canyon connoisseur: or just dull.) During an extraordinarily protracted two to four and a half years of aging, the flavors of Sbrinz condense and amplify, the paste hardens and crystallizes, so that the cheese is generally used for grating, like Parmiggiano Reggiano — but its creamier and less salty than Reggiano, I’ve heard. In fact, let the heaven’s shake, it’s been suggested that early Roman legionnaires carried Sbrinz back to the Seven Hills of Rome and on the way Sbrinz served as the originary inspiration for Parmiggiano Reggiano. I’m sure there have been bloodsplattered squabbles over a boast like that.

not quite as attractive on his coin as Thomas Jefferson.

Antoninus: not quite as attractive on his coin as Thomas Jefferson.

Whether or not the Swiss (or Helvetians) deserve that lofty point of pride, they can at least boast of killing a Roman Emperor, a good deed anybody ought to be proud of. Except that this one seemed to be decent, mostly. The reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius — aka Antonin the Pious, aka Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pontifex Maximus — was the most peaceful in all the Principate (the period from Augustus through the 3rd century AD). He did not leave Rome much, did not bother extending the domains, pillaging for sport, disciplining the conquered, or slaying whomever he pleased in the palace. Still — as one legend has it — death struck from without, unforeseen; and this meek ruler suffered one of the Barbarians’ first blows: for he was stricken with fever and died after gorging himself beyond wisdom on delicious, delicious Swiss cheese.

Sbrinz comes in 88 pound wheels made with 110 gallons of Brown Swiss milk. Which is very large. I wonder how far Antoninus made it into his — although his wheel may not have been that big, because iLoveCheese.co.uk says the practice of making gigantic Swiss cheeses didn’t come about till the Middle Ages, as a way of circumventing pay-per-cheese tolls on the highways. Others have suggested that the huge wheels are emblems of cooperative living and farsighted planning for rough winters. I don’t know. But I do know that Emmental (much more widely produced than Sbrinz in the modern era; the source of what everyone glibly calls “Swiss”) comes in 175-220 pound wheels the size of tractor tires. I write that, but even I don’t believe it. To make one wheel of Emmental requires a day’s milk from six to eight herds of ten to fifteen cows each. Mr. FX’s simple and lonesome cheesemakers were not making Sbrinz or Emmental, I suppose, no matter how big their copper kettles.


Christ and his monkish follower. Neither seems pleased.

Christ and his monkish follower. Neither seems pleased.

Another fantastic Swiss cheese is called Appenzeller, and it originated at the Abbey of St. Gallen in northeastern Switzerland. This abbey was founded in 616 AD by St. Gallus, a disciple of St. Columbanus; and the cheese must have been birthed soon after, in time to be praised by His Holy Roman Highness Emperor Charlemagne himself (a famous praiser of cheese, 747-814 AD). It was the Irish Columbanus (540-615 AD) who instigated the re-conversion of Europe, after Christianity had faded with the decline of the Roman Empire. During the darkest of the Dark Ages, the culture and the learning of classical and Christian civilization were briefly detoured, cloistered up in isolated Irish monasteries; and so were the accrued accomplishments in cheesemaking. The Barbarians went back to mushy cheeses and worse: butter and cream. Yes, they lived like hogs. When Columbanus left Ireland on his peregrinatio — a self imposed, missionary exile for the sake of the Church — he founded monasteries all over Europe, and carried with him some Irish monastic discipline, some of the culture of Rome (and of Greece, through Rome), and much of the know-how to make good hard cheese.

To accomplish all this, Columbanus had to leave his poor mother back at home on the island, though she didn’t want him to go, not at all. “His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode,” wrote James Joyce in Ulysses. So in the heat of righteous zeal and the sorrow of neglected motherlove the monastic cheeses of the mainland were born, at last, in the province of Appenzell and elsewhere.

These famous hard Swiss cheeses — and let’s add Swiss Gruyère to the list — are all cooked, pressed, lightly salted, and brushed as they age. Appenzeller is brushed with a potent blend of pepper, herbs, and white wine or cider that makes for a taste uniquely fruity and tangy. Leave it to the monks for that kind of panache, I guess. Sbrinz is rubbed with oil.


The Swiss today have developed some sort of wondrous agricultural system that I don’t know much of anything about yet, except that they seem able to retain a lot of stunningly pastoral landscape while still doing what must be done to stay alive and make wonderful cheese. The Swiss system of name protection is especially strict, its standards especially high; and the result is a nation with fewer cheese-names than Italy or France, but perhaps a greater reputation for consistent excellence. By law, Swiss cheese is always produced on the small-scale of regional co-ops — some still-operational co-ops predate the Swiss Federation — and the milk is always fresh as a weeping bloody umbilicized babe, just hours out of the teat.

Have you been wondering why some Swiss cheese has holes in it? Well, well, curious soul: bacteria, like people, sometimes fart; and when cheese bacteria fart, they create the vacated regions you notice on your slice — just as friends flee your own gassy toots. Look at The Straight Dope’s answer to this question for more satisfaction. Holes are going out of style, it seems; so you might not want to bother thinking about them. Lord knows there’s a lot to think about.

The kettle, the fire, the cheese.

The kettle, the fire, the cheese.

5 Responses to “Holy Cheese and Holy Men: Swiss, Irish, Japanese”

  1. 1 Adrienne October 15, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Suddenly I am more interested in eating Swiss cheese than I have ever been before. This calls for a fact-finding mission (the facts we seek: what is most delicious? What is the best way to eat the most delicious cheese? Which wine best augments its flavor?).

    Also: if the Japanese sennen/sennin attained “magical powers and immortality,” perhaps they were able to live simultaneously in Switzerland and Japan, and cover their tracks well enough that almost no one was able to discover their secret. Exception: Steve Jenkins, that magical mystery man.

  2. 2 Mr FX himself October 15, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    What a nice and informative post! If I spend more time reading history books than eating cheese, I might even transform my “little captions” into actual articles. You might want to read the article about Quicke’s Cheddars, there is a little philosophical dissertation on the origin of life and cheese squeeded in between captions, but you must know it already. In the coming months I’ll add three more articles I’ve shot this summer, one about sérac (Swiss whey cheese), Graukaese (Sudtyrol cheese that will bring back anybody from the dead just to escape the pungent smell) and yet another cheddar. Would you have some books to recommend me about cheese history – actually I love this but try to keep my articles as long on pictures and short on words as I can. But I like the history just the same!
    The Mr FX

  3. 3 David October 16, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    That’s so awesome that Mr. FX posted a comment.
    I think Adrienne hit the nail on the head about the sennen teleporting back and forth, I mean lets face it the Swiss invented the jet back just reach to back to their cultural mountain roots of teleporting.
    Another exsquisite posting. I must start purchasing more of these cheeses, since I now have the right to eat them knowing their origin and history.

  4. 4 justfoodnow October 19, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Outstanding article! For this reason you have been a favourite of mine for a while now – I love Swiss cheese and consider them to the Kings of cheese. Whilst I am a committed cheese-a-holic and look for the good in cheese everywhere, the Swiss are just so much better at it than anyone else.

    Thanks again.

  1. 1 Cheese Slang, pt 1: Woman, Cheese, and the Western World « after cheese comes nothing Trackback on November 2, 2008 at 2:19 am

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