In and around the small town of Gruyeres in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the village cheese dairies still manufacture a speciality cheese according to the traditional ancestral recipe, handed down over centuries. Produced since 1115 AD, this cheese was given the name Gruyere in 1602. In 2001, it was awarded ‘Appellation d’Origine Controlee’ (AOC) status, an indication of its quality and origin.
Cheese-making in Switzerland is based on age-old traditions and methods and Swiss cheese enjoys a reputation as a natural product of superior quality.
At the House of Gruyere (La Maison du Gruyere), visitors are given a full description of the manufacturing process on individual headsets. Specially targeted to interest children, a cow named Cerise, tells the story of how her milk ends up as cheese.
The cheese is manufactured under strict hygienic conditions with visitors viewing the scene from a glass-fronted gallery.
Milk being the basic raw material for the cheese, special care is taken to ensure the quality of the milk. The cows that provide the milk for the production Gruyere AOC are fed with natural fodder. Chemical additives are forbidden. Farmers deliver the milk twice a day to the cheese dairy. Production begins at 8.20 a.m. with several thousand litres of milk being poured into two copper vats after weighing. Twelve litres of milk are needed to produce one kilo of cheese.
The cheese-maker adds the starter cultures to mature the milk. These are whey-based lactic leavens cultivated in the dairy itself. When maturity is reached, the natural rennet is poured in. It contains the enzymes that curdle the milk. This process of curdling becomes visible after about 40 minutes.
As soon as the milk mass takes on a gelatinous appearance, the curd-cutting operation takes place. By turning three large curd rakes, the curds in the vat are gently separated into grains. This process takes about seven minutes. The cheese-maker’s eye determines exactly when to cut the curd, which is an important stage in the production.
The curds and whey are gradually heated for about 45 minutes and the texture of cheese checked. The curds are pumped through clean, shining pipes into stainless steel moulds with plastic covers. Ten to twelve moulds are lined up in two rows, awaiting the curds. Below the moulds, a large tub collects the whey that drains from the moulds. This will later be used as pig food.
The curd is packed into the moulds. The cheese-maker unscrews the pipes and removes the plastic covers. Identification marks are placed on the surface of the white mass. The cheese-maker quickly takes up each wheel of cheese and places them on the press. By 9.30 a.m., the ten or twelve daily wheels of Gruyere AOC produced are in the cheese press. Until noon they are pressed at a pressure gradually increased from 300 to 900 kg.
Each wheel of cheese is identified by a ‘casein’ mark showing the number of the mould and the cheese dairy. The day and month of production are also indicated. The name Gruyere AOC is stamped on the heel of each Gruyere wheel to prevent illegal copies and guarantee authenticity.
After 20 hours in the pressing, the wheels of cheese, freshly turned out, are immersed for 24 hours in a salt-water baths with 22% salt. In the baths, they absorb half of the final salt content. The work of the cheese-maker continues to the last day of storage in a climate controlled cellar.
The slow maturing process in the cellars breaks down the casein lipids into easily digestible amino-acids. This gives the smooth creamy creamy texture of the cheese. It takes several more months to acquire their full flavour. The final stages of maturing continue in cellars. Finally, the quality-tested cheeses go on the market for sale.
A visit to Gruyere, however, is not complete without a look at the picturesque Gruyere village with its cobbled streets and the Chateau de Gruyere, a medieval castle that stands on a hill, overlooking the village. The castle and village are packed with restaurants and cafes offering traditional food items such as cheese fondue, using Gruyere cheese and many interesting souvenir shops.