How A Swiss Cheese Cartel Made Fondue Popular

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The popularity of fondue wasn't an accident. It was planned by a shadowy association of Swiss cheese makers. A cheese cartel basically ruled the Swiss economy for 80 years, until fairly recently.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fondue is one of the simplest meals in the world - melted cheese, stale bread. But the reason why people eat so much of it is a complicated story. Robert Smith, from our Planet Money podcast, reports on how a cartel of cheese dealers convince the world to consume pots full of melted fat.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: I was in this restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland, doing the thing that one does.

Just the plain fondue.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Perfect.

SMITH: Thank you.

So I'm eating the fondue, goofing around on my phone, Googling the history of fondue. And this mysterious name keeps popping up - Schweizer Kasseunion - the Swiss Cheese Union. I asked the manager.

Have you ever heard of the Swiss Cheese Union?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No never.

SMITH: No one talks about the Swiss Cheese Union?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Never, no.

SMITH: The only info I could find was that it used to be this all-powerful group of cheese makers. But when I started to ask cheese people in Switzerland about it, I got these weird defensive answers - oh, I don't know what you're talking about; oh, they don't exist anymore; they're gone - until I found one food historian.

DOMINIK FLAMMER: No, they don't want to talk to you because they are the survivors of this Swiss Cheese Union, more or less.

SMITH: And they know it has a bad reputation when I say - when I say I want to talk to you about Swiss Cheese...

FLAMMER: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Union.

FLAMMER: They don't want to talk about that.

SMITH: Because, Dominik Flammer says, the story of the Swiss Cheese Union is a cautionary tale about the abuse of power and fondue. It starts after the First World War. Europe was destroyed; Switzerland was OK - still had cows, still made cheese. In fact, they had too much cheese. Swiss cheese was piling up, and the cheese makers decided to form a cartel - an agreement among competitors not to compete. It was like OPEC for cheese.

For decades, they set the price of milk, limited production, restricted the kind of cheeses you could make in Switzerland. They really pushed the Emmental, the cheese with the little holes. Dominik says if I wanted to see the kind of power they had, I should really go and visit the cheese rebel. He lives in the hills south of Zurich.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND CHIMES)

SMITH: And seriously, you cannot get more Swiss than this - rolling green pasture, adorable brown cows. And standing there in the middle of the herd, the cheese rebel.

SEP BARMETTLER: These are my girls.

SMITH: Sep Barmettler became a cheese rebel because he wanted to make a cheese called Sprinz, which is a little like Parmesan. And he takes me down into his cheese cellar to show me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

SMITH: Beautiful brown wheels of aging cheese floor to ceiling. Sep tells me how in the old days, you needed the permission of the cheese union to sell anything. And he kept writing them again and again for a license to make Sprinz. His son, Lucas, helps translate.

LUCAS BARMETTLER: And he took about eight years until he received final information from them.

SMITH: Eight years.

L. BARMETTLER: Yes, eight years.

SMITH: The Swiss Cheese Union said no. No, you cannot make the kind of cheese you want to make.

S. BARMETTLER: They say you are too little. I am too small.

SMITH: And he couldn't really fight back. Instead, he sold his cheeses quietly, under the table. The cheese cartel just grew more ambitious. In the '50s and '60s, they decided it wasn't enough to control the supply. They also wanted to boost demand, somehow get people to eat surplus Swiss cheese by the bucket. Dominik Flammer, the historian, says they started thinking you know, there is that one dish they eat sometimes up in the Alps.

FLAMMER: We could sell it with a traditional story behind it to show that cheese was a very healthy food from the Alps.

SMITH: It was fondue. And the Swiss Cheese Union sold it hard back in the 1970s - big ad campaigns of good-looking Swiss people in ski sweaters partying it up over pots of cheese. If you have a dusty red fondue pot somewhere in your kitchen, it is a testament to this age of peak fondue. It was also the peak of the cheese cartel.

Because it started to seem crazy in Switzerland that the government was spending so much money subsidizing cheese and fondue, there were allegations of corruption. A Swiss cheese official went to jail. By the end of the 1990s, the Swiss Cheese Union had collapsed. The cheese rebel and his friends could now make and sell whatever cheeses they wanted. Of course, even with the cartel gone, everyone decided that this fondue thing was still pretty awesome for the cheese business. And to this day, they are very insistent in Switzerland that you try the fondue and don't stop eating until you hit the bottom.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The end of the fondue is the best part of the fondue.

SMITH: Just to scrape off the cheese on the bottom?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, because it's famous in Switzerland.

SMITH: The Swiss Cheese Union would be grateful. Robert Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.