Set in Switzerland’s Fribourg region, Gruyères (yes, there is a ‘s’ at the end) is one of the most picturesque destinations in the tiny country. And that’s high praise. But if you’re a foodie, there’s another very important reason to make a pit stop at this place—it’s a cheese heaven. If you’ve heard of or tasted Gruyère cheese, well this is its homeland.
I recently went back to Switzerland and visiting this region was simply a highlight of the short trip. I’m back with so much more adoration for the hard, yellow and tremendously adaptable cheese that I’m already planning a trip back.
In fact, no visit to Switzerland is ever complete without seeing how cheese is made. And while I really appreciate the large scale factory at Mason Du Gruyere, I was keen to observe a more intimate cheese making. So, I drove down to the alpine cheese dairy Les Invuettes, situated at the gateway to the magnificent Gros Mont valley between Charmey and Jaun.
As I walked half-way up this beautiful mountain, the cheese factory beckoned with radiantly roofed courtyard tables waiting for visitors to come and taste the cheese and fondue (why not, right?).
I met Gérard Biland and his team who produce great alpine cheeses. They include Gruyère d’alpage AOP and Vacherin Fribourgeois d’alpage AOP as well as house specialities such as barrels, serac or tomme in the cheese dairy.
The most vital ingredient for making cheese, of course, is good quality milk. Hence the factory is situated near the mountain meadows. The farm has over 70 dairy cows and 50 whey-fed pigs.
While cheese-making is an integral part here, not every cheese gets the Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée or an AOP category. The fromagerie process begins at 7:30am every morning by heating milk in a large cauldron over wood fire to a temperature of 32°C. Yeast and cultures are then added to the milk, post which it is removed from the fire and the liquid is pressurised. It turns into a curd-like consistency 40 minutes later. The cheesemaker then stirs the cauldron to break up the solids, stirring to perfection—34 to 37°C for Vacherin style cheeses and 57°C for Gruyère.
The curd is then transferred to moulds using cheese cloth. The excess liquid is removed and the moulds, made of wood to add aroma, have weights on them to create a solid wheel of cheese. They are turned several times for the whole of the next day. Then, the cheese is submerged in a salt brine bath for 8 to 24 hours, depending on the variety, and then aged in the cheese cellar. Six months later, you can eat your Gruyère!
After a lesson in cheese-making, it was time for a taste. There it was in front of me, a huge, bubbling cauldron of cheese, just waiting at the Fondue Academy. The moitié-moitié fondue (half Gruyère and half Vacherin) is distinctive and about 15,000 cheese wheels of which are prepared at the Maison du Gruyère. The number does seem high but not when you put it into perspective—a Swiss individual consumes 21kg of cheese per year!