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Why Swiss Cheese Has Holes — And 7 Other Amazing Facts About Cheese

Cheese, glorious cheese. One of humanity’s oldest culinary creations, cheese has been around for nearly 4,000 years and comes in more than 1,800 varieties. Here’s a sampler platter of facts about everybody’s favorite dairy product.

Why Does Swiss Cheese Have Holes?

A cut block of Swiss cheese with a knife on a cutting board.
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Surprisingly, nobody really knows for sure. The longstanding theory was that bacteria in the cheese emits carbon dioxide, creating bubbles — or “eyes” — that burst as the cheese matures. (Cheese varieties without these eyes are referred to as “blind.”) While this has been the leading hypothesis for the past century, there are other theories. A 2015 study suggests that small particles of hay in milk may cause the famous holes. There’s evidence that these small specks weaken the cheese’s internal structure, causing gas bubbles to emerge.

Cheese Is Surprisingly Human

Woman in blue apron holding soft french camembert cheese.
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There’s a reason the scent of certain cheeses smells like feet, armpits, or sweat: The bacteria that make human beings stinky are closely related to the bacteria responsible for stinky cheeses, such as Limburger. In fact, some cheeses are so human-like that mosquitoes can mistake them for flesh.

The World’s Most Expensive Cheeses May Surprise You

Close up of a female moose in the wild.
Credit: Ana Gram/ Shutterstock

One of the world’s priciest cheeses? Moose. Made in Sweden, moose cheese is created exclusively at a 59-acre farm that sells the stuff to high-end restaurants for approximately $500 per pound. The cheese is amazingly high in butterfat, making it rich and creamy. Even more pricey is pule, a cheese made from the milk of Serbian donkeys. It reportedly costs about $1700 per pound. (Reviewers say it tastes like manchego.)

Before Gender Reveals, There Was Groaning Cheese

 Wheels of Gruyere cheese stored in racks.
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In parts of medieval England, it was traditional for a father to buy a cheese — called “groaning cheese” — when his wife gave birth. The cheese was hollowed out and pieces presented to everyone present around the birth. At the child’s christening, the baby would be passed through the wheel of cheese for good luck.

Music May Affect Cheese Flavor

Headphones resting on an open laptop.
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In 2018, researchers separated nine giant wheels of Emmental cheese and played them selections from Mozart's “The Magic Flute,” Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," and "Jazz (We've Got)" from A Tribe Called Quest, among other sonic selections. The cheeses were exposed to the music 24 hours a day over six months. When food technologists later analyzed the samples, they discovered that the cheese exposed to classical music and rock had a milder flavor compared to a control. As for the hip-hop cheese? It had "a discernibly stronger smell and stronger, fruitier taste than the other test samples." Researchers are further studying how acoustic waves might affect cheese development.

Everybody Loves (to Steal) Cheese

Chunks of parmesan cheese and a grater on a cutting board.
Credit: barmalini/ Shutterstock

Each year, about 4% of the world’s cheese supply is stolen — making it the most-stolen food in the world. Cheese, after all, is big business: Global sales exceeded $114 billion in 2019. In Italy, Parmesan is so valuable it can be used as loan collateral, according to CBS News. Consequently, the black market for cheese is thriving. From 2014 to 2016, organized crime was responsible for stealing about $7 million of Parmesan. And dairy-based crime definitely isn’t limited to Italy: In 2009, a duo of cheese thieves in New Zealand led police on a high-octane car chase — and tried to throw off the pursuit by tossing boxes of cheddar out the window.

Cheese Was Once Used for Divination

In both ancient Greece and the European Middle Ages, people occasionally tried to predict the future using cheese — a practice known as tyromancy. By some accounts, the holes in the cheese were “read” as omens, much in the same way the shapes that tea leaves form at the bottom of a cup might be interpreted. In other accounts, women attempted to predict their future husbands by writing the names of suitors on scraps of cheese. The first to mold was the “winner.”

The Chaucer of Cheese

Hand writing with old quill pen on the old paper.
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A 19th-century Canadian poet named James McIntyre tried to make a name for himself by writing lyrical verse in homage to fromage. His poetry included titles such as: “Hints to Cheesemakers,” “Prophecy of a Ten Ton Cheese,” and “Lines Read at the Dairymaid’s Social.” But his most famous work is “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese: Weight over Seven Thousand Pounds.” It is reproduced here in all of its glory:  

We have seen the Queen of cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze --
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you'll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

Cows numerous as a swarm of bees --
Or as the leaves upon the trees --
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unrivalled Queen of Cheese.

May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great World's show at Paris.

Of the youth -- beware of these --
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing o' Queen of Cheese.

We'rt thou suspended from baloon [sic],
You'd caste a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

You may have already come to this realization on your own, but it’s worth mentioning that McIntyre is widely considered one of the worst poets of all time.

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