The Swiss cheese with the musical taste

When a Swiss person travels abroad, the odds of cheese being mentioned in the first five minutes of a conversation are almost as high as talking about chocolate or the mountains. It must be said that cheese is an integral part of Switzerland's heritage. From Emmentaler to Appenzeller, from Gruyère to Sbrinz, from Tête de Moine to Vacherin, hundreds of varieties reflect a savoir-faire that has been built up over the centuries. But while Swiss cheesemaking remains true to its roots, there is still plenty of room for innovation and creativity, with new varieties being introduced regularly and production methods constantly being updated. As if to prove this, the latest surprising – yet entirely serious – initiative is the use of music during the ripening process. But leaving aside the chemistry and the magic and to cut to the chase: does rock music produce a tastier cheese than opera?

London, New York, Burgdorf: is this sleepy little town in the Emmental valley in the canton of Bern on the road to becoming a music capital? Burgdorf is hardly the place you'd expect to find underground clubs, professional recording studios or prestigious concert halls. And yet, in addition to a few places dedicated to yodelling or string instruments such as the hexenscheit, it is home to K3, a veritable laboratory dedicated to mixing cheese with... culture. 

The Emmental region is above all famous for its eponymous hard cheese made from raw milk. In the local dialect it's referred to as 'Muttenglück' and is immediately recognisable by its many holes, a technique which can be traced back to the 13th century. The man who put Burgdorf on the world map of musical and culinary innovation runs one of the 200 cheese dairies that are authorised to produce this 'king of cheeses'. A veterinarian by profession, Beat Wampfler produces Emmental 'for love' on a farm built in 1853. The process involves a number of stages, which we will examine below. 


A timeless production method

According to www.fromagesuisse.ch – the bible of Swiss cheese – "its production has basically not evolved for millennia, although modern technologies now make much of the manual work unnecessary". The process entails the following five stages: curdling, which consists in coagulating the milk by filtering, heating and stirring it, and adding an enzyme (rennet) to it; 'cutting' the coagulated mass using a stirring instrument; heating (at maximum 57°C) and pressing the whey extracted beforehand and salting; fermentation, which forms the holes – caused by carbon dioxide released from the breaking-down of lactose which, when trapped in the mass, forms bubbles which in turn create the holes; and finally ripening, a stage where the cheese acquires its characteristic taste through the breakdown of proteins.

Copyright: Bern University of the Arts (HKB)
Copyright: Bern University of the Arts (HKB)

Revisiting the key stage

Ripening, also known as maturation, is not only the most important stage in the production of a cheese, but it is also the most symbolic. It is the stage where each cheese wheel is cosseted with the utmost care, delicately taking its place in rows along with other cheeses, like newborns being cared for in a nursery (it is said that cheese is a real living organism). It is the stage where the cheesemaker can make the greatest number of variations on flavours and textures... but also try some ingenious experiments: on the time the cheese is left to ripen, for example, which can vary greatly depending on the variety – from just a few days for a Tomme to several years for a Sbrinz; or on the level of humidity, the nutrients used or the temperature (some cheeses such as St-Paulin are placed in a refrigerated room immediately after salting); or even on (why not) the acoustics. 

The sonochemistry of cheese

Forget the peaceful atmosphere of the Bernese countryside, the sounds of cowbells or the singing of birds. Beat Wampfler gives his Emmental cheese a very special kind of treatment. He asked himself "If humans react to music, and so do cows and plants, why would bacteria be any different?" In 2018, his hunch was put to the test in a joint project of Bern University of the Arts (HKB) and Käsehaus K3 entitled 'Cheese in Surround Sound – a culinary art experiment'.

Each cheese is placed in a wooden crate and is subjected to a different sound.
Each cheese is placed in a wooden crate and is subjected to a different sound. Copyright: Bern University of the Arts (HKB) 

Several sound boxes were specially created by four students from the HKB's sound arts class. Their mission: to play different types of music through a small loudspeaker placed under each wheel, ranging from urban music to Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' and Led Zeppelin. This process is similar to sonochemistry, a field that deals with the influence of sound waves and resonance on solid matter.

On 14 March 2019, after several months of ripening and non-stop piped music, a jury of experts will have the onerous task of tasting each cheese, detecting any differences in taste and thus deciding whether or not the 'sonomagic' has worked on the 'Muttenglück'. If it has, the experiment could pave the way for all sorts of agricultural and culinary innovations. Commercial production of a musical cheese might even be on the cards. Either way, the experiment comes under the banner of 'HKB Goes Ashore 2018', a collaborative project of the HKB aimed at promoting contact between town and country, cultural exchange and mutual discovery.