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Swiss cheese in Lucerne

Swiss cheese in Lucerne
I don’t know about you, but I certainly get the impression that the Swiss like to keep things to themselves. The Sound of Music certainly gave whole generations an idea of their beautiful landscapes (along with a more sinister plot about a middle-aged man trying to pull a young nun), but there is no doubt that beyond the cuckoo clocks, cheese fondue, banking and winter sports, much of what this country has to offer is little-known to the average Brit on the street.
That may be about to change as far as Swiss cheese is concerned and deservedly so. For the last 10 years Switzerland Cheese Marketing AG has been on a mission to show people that Swiss cheese is amongst the best in the world and if you like your cheese natural, exploding with flavour and created with true artisan skill handed down over generations then you will be inclined to agree.
Now I know that there are a couple of famous Swiss cheeses that you will all have heard of, but that’s not the point. Most of us don’t take the Gruyere or Emmental that we get in our supermarkets quite as seriously as we might. More than this though, there is a depth of cheese-making skill and passion that is quite simply astounding and would compare and perhaps surpass the best cheese-making cultures in the world.
How do I know? Well I have just returned from a flying visit to Lucerne, the centre of the Sbrinz AOC cheese making territory, a type of cheese that really has to get a wider audience.
Surprisingly, the Michelin starred Jasper Restaurant at the elegant Palace Luzern Hotel that I stayed at didn’t have Sbrinz on its otherwise gorgeous cheese-board. However, Ulf, the head chef who came with us the following morning to a local Sbrinz producer, had by the end
Swiss cheese in Lucerne
of the visit vowed to switch from its more famous cousin Parmigiano. Quite so.
And yes, for those of you unfamiliar with this wonderfully, nutty, rich-tasting hard cheese, it is said that Sbrinz was the original Parmigiano and was exported across the border to become its more famous cousin - a story I like so much that I don’t intend to check its veracity just in case it’s not true.
The production of Sbrinz, like most cheese of course, starts with milk. Legend has it that the devil himself taught the Swiss how to make cheese from their milk but that he became irritated with them before explaining what could be done with the whey. True or not, milk production remains an integral part of the process and the quality is rigorously, even religiously controlled. A critical factor is that the cows who produce this milk can only feed on pasture or hay. This is fundamental – an experienced cheese producer will be able to see from the quality of the milk whether it has come from animals fed on silage or, god forbid grain, a quite necessary skill as Sbrinz produced with milk from silage-fed cows has a tendency to explode. And of course the milk has to be raw and unpasteurised.
Our cheese producer, with the deeply satisfying name of Sepp Gut (pronounced ‘goot’ not ‘gut’ as I would have preferred) enthusiastically showed us the steps to producing this historic product. It takes 12 litres of the aforementioned silky raw milk to create 1 kg of Sbrinz cheese. Each morning their van travels around the local area collecting the fresh milk from up to 25 milk producers which has to be turned into cheese within 15 hours. The rennet is added to the milk and shortly starts to curdle and is then cut into tiny pieces in a huge vat. With all cheese, the smaller the granules, the less water the final cheese contains and therefore the harder it becomes. Poured into moulds the cheese is pressed and then the wheels are immersed in salt water for around 18 days before being washed, dried and then ripened for around 20 days before a period of around 4 months maturation. It is at this point that the producer passes over completion of the cheese to one of 3 affineurs (in this case Emmi) where, to be classified as Sbrinz the cheese must be aged for at least 18 months.
So just what is so dammed good about this cheese? Well firstly the quality of the ingredients and the really exceptional passion of the producer combine to create a living food that will change from season to season, producer to producer and from area to area. I can’t help feeling that the modern concern for consistency is a bad thing because it inevitably means that exceptional quality is often sacrificed for uniform consistency - and actually the idea of subtle variations based on when and where something has been produced adds to the revelatory experience of this type of artisan food.
However, the absolute litmus test is the taste. There is no doubt that a well-matured Parmigiano is a world-class cheese and this Sbrinz held up extremely well in comparison. Slightly softer than its cousin, it had a similar very satisfying slightly gritty texture. The flavour was up there with some of the best Parmigiano’s I’ve tried, rich and nutty and buttery with a strength that lingers on the tongue for long minutes. This would be really special eaten in little chunks with a chilled Riesling or Chardonnay from Fruili – or better still a local Chasselas - if you can ever find one outside Switzerland.
So for Ulf, the head chef at the Jasper, it’s quite right that you should support a genuinely local cheese over even famous and high quality international competition when the local product is really this good.
Unfortunately it isn’t the easiest cheese to find in the UK, with Patricia Michelson’s La Fromagerie in London being one of the few places I could find this stocked.
However, watch this space, I was won over by this cheese and will try and make sure that it is represented at next year’s Real Food Festival – indeed, maybe we can bring a lot more from this beautiful country because for depth of passion, artistry and pure ingredients it’s up there with the best.
Where to stay
Palace Luzern Haldenstrasse 10 CH 6002 Luzern A classic old style grand hotel, stunning position overlooking Lake Luzern, surprisingly warm and relaxing for such a grand hotel, which can sometimes be too stuffy and informal.
Where to eat
Jasper Restaurant Palace Luzern Michelin starred (16 points GaultMillau) contemporary approach, with a real appreciation of quality local ingredients (even if the maitre d’ got it wrong when he said the Black Angus beef came from Argentina – it actually came from a local producer 10 minutes away!).Interesting wine list with good examples of Swiss wines on offer.
How to get there Regular flights from London City Airport with British Airways to Zurich with around 45 minutes transfer, a simple pleasure at this airport compared to the larger London alternatives. With thanks to Sepp Gut, Käserei Hof, Ennerbergstr. 26, 6374 Buochs Switzerland.
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Joy Goodyear


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21 September 2009
By: Philip Lowery
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