Swiss Cheese

August 19, 2010 § 1 Comment

Swiss cheese is much in evidence at the show dairy in the hamlet of Pringy on the outskirts of the village of Gruyères in Western Switzerland. And I don’t just mean the vast wheels of the stuff in the maturing cellars. There’s lots in evidence in the twee on-site restaurant and most of all in the knick-knack laden gift shop.

Picture-perfect Gruyères with its castle, quaint winding streets and Maison de Gruyère show-dairy is definitely a tourist magnet. On the day of our visit it was overrun with visitors of all nationalities including two improbably grown-up and portly troupes of boy scouts. We duly joined the queue for tour and museum tickets and after a short wait we were taken step by step through the story of the cheese. It all starts here with the alpine pasture:

Well it does and it doesn’t as only the specially designated Gruyère d’Alpage is made in the summer from the milk of cows grazing the high mountain pastures. Just 56 dairies produce 400 tonnes per annum of this rare commodity whereas a total of 200 dairies produce 27,500 tonnes per annum of Swiss AOC (Appellation d’Origine) gruyère. Talking of AOC gruyère, the museum maintains a dignified silence on the subject of so-called French gruyère. The French cheekily awarded their own product national AOC status back in 2001 and subsequently went a step too far going for Europe wide PDO (protected designation of origin) status. Earlier this month the European authorities, quite correctly in my view, threw out the French claim. It’s a bit rich the French trying to protect their own so called gruyère cheese when they come down like a ton of bricks on smalltime producers of elderflower champagne…

Back to the genuine article. Swiss AOC gruyère can only be produced in a relatively small area centred around Gruyères itself within the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Bern. The milk comes not from what I think of as a traditional Swiss light brown cow but from the black and white or reddish-brown and white Fribourg breed. Each cow eats an astonishing 100kg of grass per day and produces as a result just 25 litres of milk. The traditional 35kg round of cheese is made from a generous 400 litres of milk. At the show dairy, they work with vats holding 4,800 litres of milk to produce 12 cheeses at a time. The morning milk is added to the previous evening’s milk (which has been stored overnight at a temperature of between 15 and 18 degrees C) before the cheesemaking process begins.

Gruyère cheese is often described as unpasteurised, but as the museum visit makes clear, the milk is gently heat-treated (to 57 degrees C compared to the 71 degrees C of the pasteurisation process) during the production of the cheese. The milk (presumably skimmed to remove the luscious Gruyère crème double much fêted in this part of Switzerland) is first heated to 32 degrees C before adding a natural starter culture (lactic acid fermentation agent in whey) and subsequently animal rennet. The starter culture matures the milk and the rennet causes it to coagulate into a mass. The coagulated milk or curd is then cut using large blades into small pieces. Judging the exact moment to begin the cutting is reckoned to be the trickiest part of the whole process.

The cut curds are then heated to 57 degrees C until the mixture becomes elastic and firm to the touch and the cut curds shrink to the size of small peas. At this point the whey is drained off and the curds ladled into moulds and pressed to form the virgin gruyère cheeses.

The fresh cheeses, vulnerably pliable at this stage, are soaked in a 20% brine solution which gives the cheese half of its ultimate salt content. Finally, the cheeses are placed on shelves of untreated pine (picea abies, the Norway spruce aka the Christmas tree) and left for a lengthy maturation process at a constant temperature of 13 to 14 degrees C. The cheeses are turned daily and brushed with salt solution as they mature. This no doubt used to be carried out by hand but the ever-ingenious Swiss have devised a robot to carry out this repetitive task. There is a certain fascination to be had watching the robot progress up and down the aisles of cheese.

5 to 6 months’ maturation produces a doux (mild) cheese; 7 to 8 months’ a mi-salé; 9 to 10 months’ a salé; +10 months’ a réserve; and finally 15 months’ a vieux. Older is not necessarily better in my book and I rather enjoyed the mild flavour of the youngest gruyère. Visiting the show dairy is a multi-sensory experience and helpfully you are given samples of 3 different ages of cheese to taste the difference. They become progressively more intense and savoury as they age.

You’re not normal if at this stage you haven’t developed an intense salivating urge to buy more cheese to take home. Might I suggest that you restrain yourself from joining the horrendous crush in the end-of-tour store and take a stroll up a grassy hill in the direction of the town of Gruyères itself. On the way, you will pass this traditional farmhouse:

Ring the bell and the farmer’s wife will cut for you a wedge of authentic Gruyère d’Alpage. She also sells the fresh whey cheese known as sérac, a by-product of the gruyère cheese making process. This is what the local farmers used to eat themselves as the gruyère itself was far too lucrative a commodity for home consumption.

I initially thought that sérac must be a marketing man’s invention to make a plain cheese more enticing with a mountain-themed brand identity. A sérac is, as any mountaineer will tell you, the name of the rough ice lumps that form when a glacier undulates. It transpires that it’s the other way round. The cheese was named sérac first, with a possible derivation from the Latin word for whey, serum, and the glacial formation was named after the cheese in a fit of whimsy.

The farmer’s wife suggested eating the sérac as it came with salt, pepper and fresh herbs or using it as a cooking ingredient. I found a handy recipe for cooked sérac posted on the www.genevalunch.com website on 15 March 2010 by Jonell Galloway.

Finally, if all this sounds too touristy for you, how about a day’s foraging for wild plants in the lush Fribourg countryside? I saw an enticing little flyer for just such an adventure pinned up on the Maison de Gruyère noticeboard but didn’t have the time to take up the opportunity. The lady leading the foraging walks is Christine Brinkerhoff-Meier tel 00 41 (0)26 928 1429 ortieenfolie@hotmail.com. The tours run from 9.00 till 16.00 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months.

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§ One Response to Swiss Cheese

  • Lost in Yonkers? says:

    Hey sounds sooo good. I personally adore the aged gruyere but after reading your notes made me think I should “go back to my roots” and try the young stuff again. By the way, did you try the serac fresh with salt, pepper and herbs? Sounds delicious – wonder if it would benefit from a splash of EVOO or perhaps even a nut oil…

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