From the foothills of the Bernese Alps, among lakes, rivers and valleys, hails one of the most savory, most cookable, most beloved Swiss cheeses: Gruyère.
“Mountain people,” or Sennen as they were known in their heyday a thousand years ago, needed to find a way to generate revenue from their cattle in the wintertime. To do this, they produced alpine cheese. Alpine cheeses, like Gruyère, are those that come from the mountains. They are large, so as to keep better and longer in cold, harsh conditions, and firm, to endure the long trek down from the remote pasturelands in the mountains to the lowlands where they can be sold.
For centuries, Gruyère was not legally a Swiss cheese. The French believed that it was theirs, claiming it was invented by French cheesemakers in the eastern region of Franche-Comté, in the Jura mountains. The Swiss fought back, holding that Gruyère was in fact a Swiss cheese, first created on Swiss soil. This cultural battle dragged on for many years, during which time legal conflict after legal conflict ensued. Finally, in 2001, Switzerland gained “Appellation d’origine contrôlée” status over the cheese at the national level. Ten years later, in 2011 (just five years ago!) Europe formally recognized Gruyère as a Protected Designation of Origin product of Switzerland. Among its most significant production requirements are (1) Gruyère must be made of raw milk and (2) a wheel must weigh between approximately 55 to 88 lbs. Pictured above, I am holding 74 lb of Gruyère. Good thing I didn’t drop it; that’s hundreds of dollars worth of cheese!
Procuring and Tasting:
Most cheese shops will carry Gruyère, as it is a classic like most cheeses I cover on this blog. The Gruyère I bought was called Gruyère Alpage, which means that the milk is from the summer months when the herds graze on the rich grasses of the alpines. The result is an extra flavorful Gruyère. Because the Alpage version is only available for a limited time, it’s about $8 more expensive than regular Gruyère, at an average of $35/lb rather than $27.
The first thing I noticed when I tasted Gruyère Alpage was its aroma. It smelled sharply of nuts, milk and warm spices, though I can’t put my finger on which ones. When I took a bite, those same scents stung my taste buds. As two cheese experts, Steven Jenkins and Max MacCalman both note, Gruyère carries “distinct hints of spoiled milk.” Its texture was creamy and slightly granular. Sour but still savory, Gruyère Alpage was remarkably delicious.
Cooking with Gruyère:
I really went all out when cooking with Gruyère and indulged in some gastronomic nostalgia by fixing up some classic French café recipes. First, I baked a Quiche Lorraine. About ten minutes after sitting in the oven, the quiche emitted a strong aroma of onions and sour milk that wafted through the kitchen. I followed this recipe and I must say, the thyme was a perfect complement to the cheese. Next, I cooked Croque Monsieur. The nutmeg was a linchpin in the béchamel sauce. You can also melt Gruyère to make a fondue or grate it as a topper to create a tasty French Onion Soup. Because of Gruyère’s complex taste, it would pair well with a number of beverages including ciders, wheat beers and even a nutty stout and fruits like pears and apples.