"What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?" - Bertolt Brecht
I learned recently that the distinctive holes in Swiss cheese are actually called "eyes" and that eye formation is a critically important step in the making of Swiss cheese.
If you don't get the eyes right, then the cheese won't fetch top dollar. A small, focused group of Newfoundlanders are coming to grips with such challenges at a new $5-million-plus cheese-making plant in Donovans Industrial Park. The plant belongs to Central Dairies of the Farmers Group of Cos.
Central Dairies was looking for a way of using milk that was excess to the needs of its regular business, something that would help the company and create more jobs. Making cheese seemed to make the best sense.
I asked manufacturing manager Pam Critch why Central Dairies decided to make Swiss cheese as opposed to say, cheddar.
"After some investigation, we discovered that there was a market for specialty cheese, particularly Swiss, at this time. So that's the direction we took and right now we're only making Swiss, and our goal is to get into a couple of other varieties once we conquer and master the process of Swiss cheese-making. Then we'll move on to something else, potentially Gouda or Edam, and there's a variety called butter cheese that we're interested in making as well."
Critch took me inside the massive room where the cheese is made. There I met Trepassey native Roger Ryan.
Ryan was working in the Central Dairies quality control laboratory when he was selected to be the company's cheese-maker. Before he knew it, he was in Switzerland learning to make Swiss cheese from one of Switzerland's master cheese-makers. (A cheese-maker would be the cheese-making equivalent of a brew master in beer making.) Subsequent trips to the United States were arranged for still more training. Ryan told me the most important ingredient in any cheese is bacterial culture.
"Different types of cheese use different cultures. Right now, here at Central Dairies, we're using three different types. We get them directly from Switzerland. We deal with a Swiss culture company. From the cultures, I move on and put in an enzyme called rennet. The rennet coagulates the milk and that turns it into a solid state."
The actual cooking of the cheese takes place inside what's called an OST vat. I watched Ryan and his apprentice, Chris Cole, operate the vat from a post at the very top of the giant tank. It took up to an hour for the vat's 1,150 kilograms of milk to be turned into the solid form we call curds. (Ten litres of milk is used to make 1 kg of cheese.) Then the curds and remaining liquid whey are pumped into a pressing table where the whey is drained and the curds are turned into one solid mass of cheese under air pressure applied by stainless steel plates positioned over the curds.
After the initial pressing , the cheese is machine cut into individual 12 kg blocks. Each block is carefully placed inside a white plastic mould where more pressure is applied for three hours. Then the blocks are transferred to a brine bath for several hours so it can absorb salt for flavouring and preservation. The final stage, before ripening, involves removing the blocks from the bath, drying them and vacuum packaging each of them before boxing.
Ripening of the Swiss cheese takes place in stages. First the cheese is stored in a 15 C room for 14 days, and then in a 20 C room for several more days. However, it's in this second ripening room where the all-important eye formation happens. Roger Ryan gave me a detailed summary of how the eyes, or holes, in Swiss cheese are formed.
"While it's in the 20 degree room, that's where the propionibacteria that I put in at the beginning goes to work. This bacterium produces the Co2 that makes the eyes in the cheese. It's only at this point, 16 days after the cheese is made, that that bacteria gets activated and starts producing gas. Another bacterium from the beginning of the process by this point has eaten all the sugar in the milk, which is lactose. They convert the lactose to lactic acid and once the cheese gets into the 20-degree room the propionibacteria (which forms the eyes) takes the lactic acid and converts it to propioni acid plus Co2 and lactic acid. And this is where you get your eye formation."
According to Critch, eye formation in Swiss cheese is important because many of their customers will be slicing the product for sale in delicatessens and other retail situations.
People want perfect eyes as well as distinctive flavour in their Swiss cheese.
None of the Central Dairies cheese will be sold directly to individual consumers as the large blocks are meant for customers who will package it or prepare it in various forms for the general public.
Critch and her team seem pleased with the product they're making these days. Recently, a master cheese-maker from Switzerland visited the plant at Donovans and gave the operation his blessing. Ryan told me the Swiss visitor was extremely impressed and happy with the quality of the cheese produced from our very own Newfoundland milk.
As Critch and I left the large, 4 C cool room where hundreds of cartons of ready cheese are stored, she looked at me with a satisfied smile and said, "Now it's time to put our sales team to work and start selling this cheese!"
Central Dairies Swiss cheese is a quality Newfoundland product that tastes delicious. Selling it should be a breeze.
Swiss cheese was invented in the Middle Ages.
The eyes should not be bigger than a walnut.
Wrapped Swiss cheese will keep in the fridge for months.
It goes best with chilled white wine.