Switzerland: Gruyere and other Alpine Cheeses

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Alpine-cows

Cows grazing on the rich diversity of alpine plants

Photo Credit: Flickr

Here is the second in a series on Old World Cheese Traditions.

by Guest Blogger, Bill Anderson

The Alpine cheeses made seasonally in the mountains perhaps best epitomize the saying that “cheese is milk’s leap towards immortality.”  In many traditional dairying societies, dairying is a seasonal activity, and making cheese is a food preservation technique.

This is especially true in the alpine tradition, where cows give birth in the spring, and as they begin milking, they graze on the green grass, legumes, wildflowers, and herbs high in the mountains.   In Switzerland, there is much celebration and ceremony surrounding the cow’s journey up into the mountains in May.  In order to preserve this seasonal flush of rich milk so that it will last through the long Alpine winter, it must be turned into cheese.

Weston A. Price wrote about this Alpine dairying tradition in his travels, and it still produces some of the most outstanding artisanal cheeses in the world.  If you ever have the chance to try Gruyere L’Etivaz, don’t pass it up.  L’Etivaz is perhaps the most traditional Gruyere made in the world.  It is produced in the western French speaking part of Switzerland.  A series of “chalets” or small huts throughout the mountainous terrain are equiped to produce the cheese in a copper kettle over an open wood fire.

swiss-vacherin-cheese-hautachia-03-1000

An alpine cheesemaker stirring and cutting the curd in a copper kettle

Photo Credit: fxcuisine.com

High-fat cheese does not age well, unfortunately, because the fats turn rancid over time.  So some of the cream is normally skimmed from the milk, which is cultured and turned into butter.  Once the milk has been coagulated and cut into curds, the cheesemaker begins building a fire to heat the curds, which causes them to expel their whey to produce a very hard dry cheese for long aging.

so much l'etivaz cheese!

Gruyere cheeses being aged in a curing cellar

cheese-fondue

Cheese Fondue

The smoke which builds up in the chalet, from the fire, contributes a slight smokey flavor to the cheese, while the rich diversity of plants on which the cows graze contribute to a wonderful rich floral aroma and flavor.  After the cheese is made, it is taken down the mountain to a cooperative aging facility, where the cheese is cured using a “schmear.”  The schmear is a brine inoculated with yeasts and bacteria native to the curing cellar or “cave”, and rubbed on the surface of the cheese.  These microbes add yet another dimension of flavor and aroma to the cheese, and are responsible for its reddish-brown rind.

Photo Credit: Marilyn 819, Flickr

Of course L’Etivaz is only one of many Alpine cheeses.  Others include Gruyere and Emmenthal in Switzerland (“Swiss cheese” is the American version of Emmenthal); Comte, Beaufort, and Abondance in Eastern France; and Fontina Val d’Aosta in Northern Italy.  During the winter, many of these traditional Alpine cheese are melted into fondue and raclette, and served with pickled veggies (such as cornichons), bread cubes, and a white wine or kirschwasser (a traditional cherry brandy) Traditional Alpine Fondue, served during the winter to reclaim old cheese and bread.

Tomorrow I will discuss French Soft-ripened Cheese.

Bill Anderson is 25 year old apprentice cheese maker living in Madison, WI.  Born in Wisconsin, and raised on lots of Wisconsin cheese, he became interested in raw milk and artisan dairy in his early 20′s, at local farmer’s markets and local food functions.  Bill worked for a number of years as a cheese monger, and is now poised to begin producing his own brand of artisan raw milk cheese with milk from some of the best organic and sustainable Wisconsin dairy farms.

See Bill’s post yesterday, Old World Cheese Traditions.

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Comments

  1. I’m really enjoying your series. It was so interesting to learn how the cheese develops its smokey flavor from the chalet’s fire. Although it makes perfect sense, I didn’t realize that Swiss fondue is more of a “winter” meal, for making good use of the older cheese and bread.
    I have such wonderful memories of a trip to Switzerland, walking among the cows with their bells.
    I hope we see some of your cheese soon!
    .-= Ellen´s last blog ..Giveaway! Real Food Starter Books =-.

  2. Gruyere cheese is a big favorite in our home!! The first bite always kind of gets me as it is quite strong, but then my taste buds cry out for more within a minute or so!

  3. This is such a beautiful presentation of the art, beauty and tradition that goes into making cheese in Switzerland. The photos are wonderful as well. This would be one of my dream holidays– to go watch cheese artisans make cheese in Swiss chalets.
    .-= Julie´s last blog ..I Need Me Some Soy Cheese, Please =-.

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