Tilsit Info

Popular Cheese Throughout Europe

Tilsit is a mild, semi-soft and buttery cheese that needs only a moderate amount of time for aging. It is perfect for the home cheese maker. Tilsit, because of it's mild flavor, is also the perfect cheese for herb and spice additions.

For many years it has been an extremely popular cheese throughout Europe but when you request a Tilsit, what you get will depend on where you are. It is a traditionally produced, semi-hard cheese made from cows milk that develops a rind with the aid of Brevibacterium linens (the aroma producing bacteria) during the ripening phase and starts out with between 30 % and 60 % fat in the dry matter. It can be made from either raw milk or pasteurized milk.

The variations can be numerous, but the common traits will be:

  1. A semi-soft cheese with a buttery texture and flavor
  2. A smooth, supple interior with tiny irregular holes
  3. Light yellow in color with a springy, supple texture
  4. Some mildly pungent aromatics due to bacteria surface ripening
  5. A flavor with mild fruit and spices and a buttery finish. The cheese can also get relatively strong in flavor as it matures
  6. A very thin and edible rind

A Bit of History

I can think of no other cheese that has developed with such a transient history.

It begins with the fertile pastures of a former east Prussian town as its namesake. The town of Tilsit, located in the Baltic lowlands, was surrounded by perfect pasture for the breed of cow named for the region of Schleswig-Holstein - the black and white Holstein cows. The neighboring Baltic Sea provided the cool damp conditions for rich pastures.

During the mid 1800's, migrants from the Emmental valley in Switzerland focused on this region for their new home and production. The Tilsit or Tilsiter (from Tilsit) recipe was first described in 1840, by a Mrs. Westpfahl who lived on a farm in the town of Tilsit. A smaller version of Emmental was the goal, but different equipment, ingredients, and ambient cultures resulted in a more pungent invention with smaller holes.

Although these Swiss brought their Alpine skills and make-procedures with them, the cheese gods had other plans for this cheese.

The lowland pastures and the local bovine population (Holsteins) could not have been more different from the Alpine conditions they had come from

  1. The Holsteins were a much higher milk yielding cow but with lower fat-to-protein ratios than their Brown Swiss of the mountains.
  2. The maritime lowlands of the Baltic region produced a much different pasture than the sunny Alpine meadows.
  3. The damp conditions produced a very different community of bacteria and molds in the aging cellars. As expected, the cheese became infected with molds, yeasts, and bacteria while being aged in these damp cellars.

So, it should be no surprise that the changes they encountered in their new home made a cheese that evolved quite different. The original recipe was for a young cheese similar to what they made in Switzerland, but due to a very different environment, the bacteria, molds and yeasts of home were quite different due to a much more humid place.

At some point in the late 1800's or early 1900's the Dutch migration with their Gouda also got a foot into the Tilsit door with their Gouda influences, providing a bit more variation.

The Tilsit cheese that evolved in this Baltic region became an extremely popular table and cooking cheese of the surrounding region of north eastern Europe. It was well received throughout Germany and Poland.

Continuing into the 20th century, the cheese prospered in it's new home until the wars and resulting geographic re-alignment. In 1945, as Russia absorbed the former German region, the remaining German-speaking cheese makers were expelled, taking their cheese back to their homelands. The town was then re-named 'Sovetsk' and the name Tilsit then existed only in the cheese. The Swiss took their cheese back to Switzerland, the Dutch back to Holland and most notably Denmark, and the Polish and Germans began to make their own variations.

Now, on a more recent note, the family that originally brought Tilsit back to Switzerland (Otto Wartmann ) became concerned with it's international production and right to use the name Tilsit. In 2007, they facilitated the renaming their farm community in Switzerland as the town of Tilsit.

A familiar pattern of migration to a rich dairyland, followed by an emigration for various reasons, all resulted in new variations of the cheese and it's history. (If you have not read Paul Kindstedt's book 'Cheese and Culture', I do recommend putting it on your 'must read' list for a great insight into how cheese has evolved over history.)

Variations in Style

The Fog of History now leaves us with the Swiss, Polish, German, Dutch, and Danish all getting involved with it through the paths of time.

  • Swiss Tilsiter The Swiss took their cheese back to Switzerland where it has evolved into the Swiss Tilsiter, a cheese that is more along the line of their Alpine style cheese with a mild semi-soft texture and a much closer body with round holes, compared with the open body of the other Tilsit style cheeses. The Swiss now make a range of their Tilsit cheeses:
    • Green label for pasteurized milder cheese.
    • Red Label for unpasteurized, stronger flavor "Farmhouse Tilsit". This is a more intense cheese and is aged for about 5 months, which yields a strong-smelling cheese similar to Limburger in aroma.
    • Yellow label for pasteurized but with added cream for a mild and creamy cheese.
  • Danish Tilsit has followed the Polish Tilsiter style, but currently has evolved in the direction of the Danish Havarti style and is sometimes referred to as Tilsit-Havarti. This is typically a semi-soft, moderately aromatic cheese with many cracks and splits caused by the curds not being heavily pressed in molding.

    This has further evolved into the Danish creamed Havarti which has more cream added, no B.linens used, sealed in plastic with no rind. All adding up to a much milder cheese that has been found to be more suited to the American taste as well. The smear bacteria is washed off after two months of allowing it to penetrate the cheese, then a thin wax outer coating is applied, which stops the cheese from molding.

    In the mid-19th Century, Dutch/Danish settlers came to East Prussia as well (now part of Russia and Poland) near the town of Tilsit. Without their familiar cheeses, these settlers grew to crave the Gouda they had come to love. Through their determination and their passion for fine cheese, these settlers resolved to attempt a recreation of their beloved Gouda. However, one cannot make Danish Gouda in a damp, moldy Prussian cellar and so was born their Tilsit, also known as Tilsit-Havarti.
  • Holsteiner Tilsiter is a cheese currently made in the Baltic region of Germany and as of recently (Dec 5, 2013) is a geographically protected cheese by the EU. A sign of the excellent reputation of ‘Holsteiner Tilsiter’ is it's very specific aroma and it's particular flavor, which is characterized by the special way in which it is spiced with caraway. Both properties can only be achieved through the special bacteria cultures, which can only exist in type and combination in the climatic area between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. This German variation features the eyes and cracks that are typical for Tilsiter. The flavor ranges from mild and lightly aromatic to strong and spicy, depending on how long the cheese is stored.

Cheese Evolution

All in all, this has been a very interesting evolution for a cheese. I think that the take-away message here is that any cheese should be what we want it to be.

It is really a matter of working with what the land and it's environs provides for us and working with that to make what we like.

This is true 'Terroir' (sense of place) and every place on earth has something good to offer.