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Scenic Gruyères, great tasting Gruyère

Scenic Gruyères, great tasting Gruyère

by Chris Osburn Thursday, October 8, 2015

One of Europe’s most iconic cheeses, Le Gruyère AOP is produced in a small Swiss town of the same name. Food writer Chris Osburn recently visited the town of Gruyères to discover what makes this cheese so special.

Chris is a freelance writer and photographer, longtime blogger and avid foodie.

Ah Gruyères, where the living is easy and the cheese is hard and serves as a tangible and delicious connection to traditions spanning 900 years. I’m back from a week long visit to Switzerland where the highlight of my trip was the time spent discovering the lovely little medieval town of Gruyères and the beauty of its surrounding countryside – and, of course, having a taste of the local claim to fame and seeing how it’s produced first-hand.

Note: The word Gruyères with an “s” is the name of the town. The word Gruyère without the “s” is the name of the cheese. Both are pronounced exactly the same though. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.

Yes, folks in and around Gruyères have been producing their namesake cheese since 1115 AD. Sometime during the last nine centuries or so, Gruyères’ cheesemakers wisely realised that less was more and that local was the only way to go. But it wasn’t until rather recently that the conditions that set their cheese apart from so many others was recognised officially.

Gruyère gained AOP status in 2001. AOP status is like PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for British and EU foods, just for Swiss products only. The status assures authenticity of ingredients, method and region.

To be called Le Gruyère AOP, and be worthy of the Gruyère stamp on the wheel, a cheese must be made from traceable milk from cows living within 12.4 miles of a dairy and within the Gruyères region. Produced with raw unpasteurised cow’s milk and aged at least five months and up to a year and a half, how long the cheese is allowed to age can have a big effect on its flavour and texture. Generally, the younger it is the nuttier and creamier it is, while an older Gruyère tends to be more earthy and dry. Aside from the lactic acid bacteria used to mature the milk and the rennet added to cause it to coagulate, there are no other ingredients. So, the milk must be amazing, right? Oh yes it is.

Gruyère cows are fed grass in the summer and hay in the winter (silage is not permitted). The verdant rollicking landscape where they graze is as idyllic and picturesque as you might imagine with air as clean and sweet as any I’ve had the pleasure of breathing.

Like so much of mountainous Switzerland, the area around Gruyères is an outdoor lover’s paradise. But to have the nutrient rich grass that the local cow’s love to munch, the area’s ample sunshine is countered by loads of rain. And word is it gets pretty cold around Gruyères during winter. I saw only clear, crystal blue skies while I was in Gruyères. As much I loved it, I wasn’t there merely to bask in the sunshine.

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A short drive from town, I paid a visit to La Maison du Gruyère. This demonstration centre is an actual working dairy as well. A smart option for checking out the best of Gruyères indoors, it offers visitors the chance to learn about how the famous cheese is produced while getting a chance to watch it being made. There’s a cheesy gift shop (pun intended) waiting at the end of your tour with an excellent selection of locally produced dairy products and more.

 
 
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Beyond the eponymous cheese, Gruyères is well known throughout Switzerland for a variety of delicacies. The area’s double cream and meringues are the stuff of national legend. I can attest that both are gorgeous to the highest order; combined they become one of the most scrumptious treats I’ve had all year.

They do chocolate there too, with milk chocolate being the preferred variety for obvious reasons. The Cailler chocolate factory in the nearby village of Broc is the one of Switzerland’s oldest. Still in operation while providing tours for the public, it’s the second most visited cultural attraction in the country.

Of course, Gruyères is also a perfect destination for enjoying that most indulgent of Swiss dishes, fondue.

In the heart of tiny Gruyères is Le Chalet de Gruyères, a rustic restaurant specialising in fondue and warm hospitality. One part Le Gruyère AOP and one part Vacherin (another Swiss cheese from the broader Fribourg region as is Le Gruyère AOP) along with some white wine mixed in is how they do fondue at Le Chalet. And that was fine by me during my filling and homely dinner there!

A lot less appetising but phenomenally captivating is the art on display at the HR Giger Museum, hardly a minute’s stroll from the Chalet. If you’re wondering who HR Giger is, the easiest answer is that he’s the guy who designed the monster in the movie Alien (but has done way more stuff than just that). His work is incredibly well executed – especially considering how prolific he was over his 74 years of life. Not for the squeamish, Giger’s “biomechanics” style is absolutely nightmarish. When it gets to be too much though, a look out the windows at the mountain panorama calms the nerves and puts the Swiss-born artist’s twisted images into perspective.

 
 
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Back home in London and settled in to draft this article, I’m craving a return. My second trip to Switzerland in as many years, I found this last escapade especially memorable – and I’ve only sliced off a thin portion of all the good things encountered in Gruyères.

Switzerland is a small country, I suppose, and much of the food and drink that’s produced there is enjoyed domestically (and heartedly) leaving little left to export. They’ve got plenty of dairy cows to milk around Gruyères though resulting in close to 30,000 tons of Le Gruyère AOP. The great thing about a hard cheese like Le Gruyère AOP is that despite needing to be created somewhere specific it can be pretty easily shipped and eaten just about anywhere in the world and kept for a long while without going bad. To be sure I brought some Le Gruyère AOP back with me (and am certain that getting more at any number of decent shops around town won’t be an issue). With autumn in the air and winter on its inevitable way, such a robust cheese will do nicely to warm the body and soul.

 
 

Great British Chefs has a variety of Le Gruyère AOP recipes to share for all sorts of occasions. Black pudding with sourdough crumbs, fried duck egg and shaved Gruyère would do the trick for me, and no doubt would keep any potential hunger pangs at bay for yonks. And simple dishes – such as a Caesar salad or a celeriac dauphinoise – with a touch of Gruyère should prove extra tasty as well. I’m looking forward to cooking with Le Gruyère AOP over the next several weeks and into the festive season, for the memories and the flavour.

 
 
 

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