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Gruyere: Flavorful, Versatile and Affordable

Baulmes, Switzerland is a place seemingly untouched by time and modern angst. Maybe it is the brisk mountain air, the wild poppies, or the little red train whistling into the station. Or, maybe it’s the cheese. When walking the village’s quiet winding streets, it is not uncommon to find oneself yielding to a sudden procession of cows, the heavy bells around their bobbing necks creating a pleasant discordance as they are led to or from their mountain pastures.

This picturesque landscape, located in the French-speaking canton Vaud, is part of the designated region where Gruyere cheese is made. Gruyere, named after the Swiss town of Gruyeres, is one of Switzerland’s most prevalent cheeses. It can be hard to semi hard with a complex, nutty flavor that ranges in intensity depending on how long it is aged. The quality and flavor of the cheese, made from raw cow’s milk, depends greatly on the quality and origin of the milk, which incorporates everything from the life of the cows, to the methods that are used to milk them.

Christian Delessert, Baulmes’ fromager, or cheesemaker, describes how important the origin of the milk is to the process of making Gruyere.

“The taste of the cheese depends on the vegetation the cows eat, whether the producer of the milk–the farmer–works neatly and cleans off the utensils used to milk the cows. After that, it is the work of the cheese maker to do the rest. But, the herbage is important and the milk needs to be of very good quality since we do not pasteurize it”

Exacting Standards

The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status, which can only be awarded by the Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture, ensures that the Gruyere meet a set of requirements regarding origin, production, and quality. This guarantees the high quality of the product, as well as protects the traditional methods of production.

Delessert says that it is not enough that his Gruyere is made with the highest quality milk using  the required traditional, artisanal methods; the finished product has to pass a tasting test before it is allowed to be sold.

“The cheeses are inspected by an expert from the Interprofession du Gruyere, as well as a merchant, as well as a co-expert. They rank the consistency, the taste, and the rind. The points can add up to a maximum of twenty.” He says that anything scoring below 18 points cannot be sold in stores, so there is very little room for error.

“The cheeses are inspected by an expert from the Interprofession du Gruyere, as well as a merchant, as well as a co-expert. They rank the consistency, the taste, and the rind. The points can add up to a maximum of twenty.” He says that anything scoring below 18 points cannot be sold in stores, so there is very little room for error.

“We receive the evening milk from our producers,” he begins, “and cool it to 15 degrees to conserve it during the night. The next day we add the morning milk brought in by the farmers. We standardize it. That means we skim a small portion to have two tenths more fat than protein. It makes a fatty cheese.” According to Delessert, it is mandatory that the Gruyere be of at least 45% fat.

Next, bacteria are added to ferment the milk and then liquid rennet, an enzyme (found in the stomach lining of a young calf) is used to separate the curds from the whey. The curdled milk, which by then has become quite firm, is heated at 58 degrees Celsius and then distributed into 18 large molds to be pressed into wheels. The wheels of cheese are given a salt bath and smeared with bacteria to start the process of maturation.

“ Bacteria is important,” notes Delessert, “ it liberates the enzymes for the maturation process which decomposes the protein. The older the cheese gets, the more the proteins are decomposed. The cheese becomes more fine”

The cheeses are left to mature in a cellar where they are brushed regularly in salt water to help the crust form and to aid the process of aging. After five months, the Gruyere is considered mild in terms of taste and texture; at eight months, it has become a medium flavored cheese; and after a year, the cheese has reached its peak flavor and intensity.

Aged to Perfection

With all the strict regulations surrounding the process, making Gruyere is more than just a matter of being able to follow a formula. In the Emmi Kaltbach caves, just outside the Swiss city of Lucerne, the aging of le Gruyere is a skill regarded with the same  respect as any art form, requiring years of experience to master.

The prominent Swiss dairy producer, Emmi, has not always owned the caves at Kaltbach. In fact, they were discovered almost accidentally, when–sometime in the 1950s–a small-scale cheese maker ran out of room in his cellar. He decided to store the extra wheels of Emmentaler (a semi hard Swiss cheese similar to Gruyere) in what had been once used as a military bunker. To the cheesemaker’s surprise, the cheese came out of the cave aged to excellence.

“It developed a different type of aroma and flavor,” says Guido Kaelin, who  served as Emmi, vice president of marketing and procurement until 2010. “The cheesemaker found this very interesting and began to experiment with aging his cheeses in the sandstone caves.”

In the early 1990s, Emmi took over the dairy, including the caves, and continued  to perfect the aging process. It was soon discovered that the caves were resulting in an extremely consistent product, which led to a launch of Emmentaler in the late 1990s, followed soon after by a launch of Gruyere.

Because the Kaltbach caves are situated outside the designated production area for Gruyere, Emmi Kaltbach Gruyere is never produced in Kaltbach, but brought in from a dairy in the Gruyere region.

“Emmi takes the cheeses after they have been aged the minimum required time,” says Kaelin, “about three or four months, and puts them in the Kaltbach caves for an additional eight to nine months, for a total aging of least twelve months. The gruyere becomes more distinct in color and develops the unique flavor of cave aging.”

While the Kaltbach caves provide an ideal environment for aging the semi hard cheese, the high quality of Emmi Kaltbach Gruyere is dependant on the skill of the cellar master, a man whose job it is to care for the cheeses throughout the entire aging process. Kaelin explains that the cave, through it is sandstone, maintains a humidity of 96% and a temperature of around 40 degrees Celsius, with very little change throughout the year.

“The cheese,” he notes, “being a natural product, is changing basically every day. It depends on what the cow ate, how the cow felt, how the milk was delivered, how the cheese was produced. The mastery of cave aging is basically to listen to the cheese, watch the cheese, knock on the cheese, figure out how many times per week or per month to wash and turn the cheese. The cellar master has to take care and make sure that each cheese is treated differently, depending on what it needs.”

 

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