La Maison du Gruyère
Gruyère to me, is what Compté is to Raymond Blanc. Perfect for Swiss Fondues, cheese soufflés, quiches, your favourite cheese platter selection and so much more...
Gruyère is a hard cheese, named after the town where it is produced: Gruyères (Fribourg, Switzerland). The cheese is made at the factory every day, using 6 million litres of milk delivered from 30-35 dairies all over the Canton of Fribourg, where the cows graze are able to graze on fresh, alpine pastures. The cheese therefore has a distinct smell and flavour, influenced by the botanicals found in the Swiss Alps.
Since the 15th Century, Swiss hard cheese has been produced through the introduction of rennet, which comes from the stomach of cows and curdles the matured milk. Traditionally, fresh milk would have been poured into copper cauldrons, or 'Chessi's', and allowed to heat over a wood fire. However, this process has now been exchanged for a more high-tech approach, involving copper vats which have large paddles and electronic probes to measure the temperature of the milk when it is heated after the curdling process. From there, the curd is cut into wheat-sized grains and heated to 57 degrees celsius for 40-45 minutes.
When you visit La Maison du Gruyère you can take a tour around the cheese factory, with the accompaniment of an audioguide narrated by the wonderful 'Cherry'. Cherry is just one of the many cows who provide milk to the factory and is so called because she "was born in the cherry season!". Although there are line viewings three or four times a day, the best time to visit the factory is between 9.30-10.30am, when it is still relatively quiet. This is also the perfect time to catch a glimpse of the cheesemakers practicing their craft. Milk is brought in very early in the morning and by this time, the curd is ready to be pumped into moulds. This is an impressive, labour-intensive process to watch because the cheesemakers are well-practiced in a routine that creates 48 wheels of Gruyère every day.
Each mould and respective cheese's 'heel' (a.k.a. its circumference) is marked with the Gruyère AOP (Appellation d'origine contrôllée) logo. Gruyère cheese attained this status in 2001, and it is even written into Swiss Law as to how the cheese must be produced and matured! Furthermore, the wheel is marked with its own number, the cheesemaker's reference code and the date of its production. From there, the wheels are pressed for 16-20 hours. (This is the last stage readily visible on your tour).
The next day, the wheels are submerged in a water bath that has a 22% salt concentration, which accounts for the majority of the final product's salt content. This stage lasts for 24 hours, and then the wheels (in their still soft and flexible form) are taken to the Cellar/'Cave'. The cave at La Maison du Gruyère can hold up to 7,000 wheels of cheese and it is truly remarkable to see the colour differentiation between the wheels at different stages of the ageing process. Maturation can last anywhere between 5-18 months, and over time the wheels gain a firmer, crystalline texture and stronger, saltier flavour.
I hope that if you are ever in the vicinity of Gruyères, you will take some time to visit the factory and the beautifully quaint, medieval town and castle built on a fortified hilltop nearby. My top tip however, is to save the three Gruyère samples given to you at the factory (offering cheese matured to different ages). In lieu of eating these immediately, go for a hot drink at HRGiger Museum Bar, which will undoubtedly be one of the most abstract dining atmospheres you ever experience; followed by a traditional Swiss lunch, complete with meringues and Gruyères cream for dessert, (some say it's better than Cornish clotted cream).