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This Is Why We Need Filthier Cheese

In case you haven't noticed, Swiss cheese has been losing its precious holes. But why? Scientists now say that modern-day milk is simply too damn clean.
Photo via Flickr user noodle

What sort of image does your mind conjure when you imagine a Swiss scientific study? Endless rows of sharply dressed wunder-scientists meticulously uncovering the secrets of the universe, one particle at a time?

What you really should be imagining is something more along the lines of an H.R. Giger fever dream, complete with freakishly gargantuan and ever-quivering sentient udders, rigged to the roof of some undisclosed missile silo.

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READ: Emmenthaler is the 'Everybody Loves Raymond' of Cheeses

Mind-shattering (and imaginary) fever dreams aside, a study published yesterday by Agroscope—the Swiss government's agriculture, food and environmental research organization—could put to rest over a century's worth of research and prove that dairy farmers can in fact give CERN a run for its money as far as Swiss scientific breakthroughs are concerned.

The conundrum they were delving into is this one: cows (a.k.a. Calcium-Owning Whey Salespersons) have not been keeping their end of the bargain lately.

Have you noticed? For the past decade or so, Swiss cheese has fewer holes in it. It's now a block of largely uninterrupted dairy—like every other cheese. Something has started to happen to Emmental and Appenzell and the other iconic cheeses we call Swiss.

My God, what's happened to the holes?

Well, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. A new generation of scientists has gotten to the bottom of the case of the missing Swiss-cheese hole.

A century ago, American scientist William Clark speculated that the holes in Swiss cheese were caused by bacteria that emitted carbon dioxide. But in recent years, the phenomenon of what scientists have been calling the "fading hole" has led a group of scientists from Agroscope and Empa to dig deeper. They thought: maybe it's not just run-of-the-mill bacteria that was making the holes.

The scientists studied the 130-day ripening cycle of Swiss cheese, with a keen eye directed at hole formation and the current lack thereof. I imagine their work to be an almost mirror image of the Rube Goldberg-style Mouse Trap board game.

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And, Eureka! The answer turned out to be "astounding even for researchers," according to the study.

The bottom line is this: Modern cheese making methods are just too modern, and not conducive to the formation of the traditional, beloved Swiss-cheese hole.

"It's the disappearance of the traditional bucket" used during milking that has caused the difference, Agroscope spokesman Regis Nyffeler said.

Traditionally, milking of Swiss-cheese-producing cows took place in barns with the use of open buckets. Today, Swiss-cheese producers use closed milking systems. Sure, these closed milking systems do some good: "These technical improvements in milking technology have reduced the risk of unwanted microbiological contamination," write the authors of the study.

But, at the same time these improvements have reduced the entry of microscopic heupartikel! Yes, heupartikel.

We're talking hay particles. As it turns out, it all comes down to hay.

If there are no tiny microscopic hay particles floating into the milk buckets, there will be no holes in your Swiss cheese.

Ergo, no holes in your Swiss cheese means no place for your ambling tongue to get delightfully lost when biting into a croque madame.

Q.E.D.—the case of the missing holes is solved.

Will large-scale Swiss cheese producers change their erroneous ways and introduce more of the magical microscopic hay particles into their milking environments?

Stay tuned. Here's hoping the holes return.