European cheeses are often produced according to centuries-old traditions - and likely to be named after the place they come from. Export favorites have made their regions famous around the world.
Germans eat more than 20 kilos (44 lbs) of cheese per person every year, which puts them among the top European cheese-eaters. Apart from Gouda and Camembert, Emmental cheese is a popular variety. It's named after its home, the Emmental valley, which is a hilly region in Switzerland's Berne midlands. For centuries, people there have been producing Emmental cheese, a virtual synonym for Swiss cheese: yellow, round and full of holes.
Swiss Emmental cheese is famous for its holes. They are important for the brand, and proof of quality: the holes have to be about the size of a cherry, two to four centimeters (0.8 - 1.6 inches) in diameter, according to the "Emmentaler Switzerland" association. If the holes are too small, too big, or not round enough, that can be a sign the cheese isn't ageing properly. A well-ripened Emmental even has an additional seal of quality: Sometimes, there's a tiny droplet of sweet-salty water in the hole.
Bacteria in the milk create carbon dioxide in the maturing cheese, which is responsible for the holes - or so people thought for a long time. Until one day, dairies and cheese-lovers alike noticed that every year, there were fewer holes. Since an Emmental cheese without holes is unthinkable, scientists were under great pressure to come up with a solution to the "disappearing holes" problem.
That hidden little extra
They found it more or less by accident. Experiments showed that not only bacteria were responsible for the holes, but tiny particles of hay in the milk. This hay dust always used to be in the milk in the days when cows were milked in a traditional fashion. Today, dairy farms and milking machines are simply too clean - and so is the milk.
As a result, many Emmental cheese dairies add a sprinkling of hay dust to the raw milk to ensure the trademark holes. The name Emmental cheese isn't a registered trademark, so dairies all over the world produce cheeses they call Emmental, despite Swiss protests. While they're all bound to vary in taste, they will all have the characteristic holes.