For my last weekend in Switzerland, my aunt and I visited the old town of Gruyères, the Gruyère cheese demonstration dairy, and the Nestlé Cailler chocolate factory. We went on a tour of both production sites.
Gruyère cheese comes from milk strictly produced in the district of Gruyère, in the canton of Fribourg. Over 170 village cheesemakers are in the AOP region (protected term of origin), with 2,200 milk producers who deliver 345 million liters of milk each year. The cows’ diet of a variety of flowers and grasses in the Alps and valley give gruyère cheese its distinct aroma.
Cheese Production Process: Each cow eats about 100kg of grass and produces 25 liters of milk per day. 400 liters of milk goes into each 35 kilogram cheese wheel, or 12 liters of milk for each kilogram of cheese.
Milk is delivered to the production site twice daily. The milk stands in one copper kettle at 12-18*C overnight. Each kettle holds 4,800 liters of milk, which will make 12 cheese wheels (35kg each). The fresh milk is stirred and added to yesterday’s evening milk. Fermenting agents are added, along with rennet, which makes the milk curdle. The vat sits for about 50 minutes to let the milk firm, with the final three-four minutes being essential and decisive in creating cheese quality. The cheesemaker determines the precise moment to cut the curd, and turns on three large blades that cut the mass into particles for about ten minutes. The vat is heated to 57*C for 40-45 minutes to properly dry the particles and create desirable elasticity.
In only four minutes time, the huge vat drains and transfers the curdled and cut milk into the 12 wheel molds. The yellow whey drains off into basins beneath the molds.
Case marks with the day and factory ID are given to each wheel. The wheels are pressed, with pressure starting at 300 kilos and gradually increasing to 900 kilos, and they are turned regularly. After about 16 hours, the cheese is removed from the molds and is treated to smooth the sides. At this point, the gruyère is soft and supple. The cheese is taken to its first salt bath and is submerged for 20 hours in a 20% salt content at 14*C. The wheels absorb about half of its final salt content at this point.
Production is now complete and the wheels are taken to a cellar with a temperature of 13-14*C for maturation. The chamber has a slight smell of ammonia, and as the cheese matures, it acquires its distinct aroma. A robot rotates the cheese.
Four varieties of gruyère are produced: le gruyère AOP, which is the classic cheese, is aged 6-9 months; le gruyère AOP réserve is aged at least 10 months and has a stronger flavor and aroma; le gruyère AOP BIO uses milk only from BIO farms, the general equivalent to the U.S. “organic”; and le gruyère d’Alpage AOP, a cheese produced only during summertime from cows grazing in the Alps. The cows’ diet is different in the Alps and gives the milk a rich aroma, departing a unique flavor on the cheese. The cows descend the mountains in Autumn, a cultural event celebrated every year in a classic Swiss festival.
After visiting la maison du gruyère, we walked up to the old town of Gruyères, a medieval town on a hill overlooking the Lake du Gruyère. We drank espresso with Gruyère double cream, which is also used to make baked meringue cookies. Alongside a classic chateau and medieval structures, there is a museum dedicated to the “Alien” film, Musée H.R. Giger. Giger was a Swiss artist who won an Oscar for best visual effects in the movies.
It was a lovely little town, and I had a great time learning about cheese production. For more info, go to www.gruyere.com.