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.