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
- The Holsteins were a much higher milk yielding cow but with lower fat-to-protein ratios than their Brown Swiss of the mountains.
- The maritime lowlands of the Baltic region produced a much different pasture than the sunny Alpine meadows.
- 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.)