Emmanuelle Jary - 2009-01-26
On the way to Switzerland, one question was tormenting us: why does Gruyère have holes? A pointless question to ask – Swiss Gruyère doesn’t have any. It’s also unnecessary to attach the adjective “Swiss” to Gruyère – it’s a pleonasm because Gruyère is inevitably Swiss. What French people wrongly call Gruyère is in fact Emmenthal, which does indeed have holes – but that’s another story.
Gruyère is a local product, which obtained an AOC in 2001 and has extremely strict requirements. They are enormous round cheeses made exclusively with unpasteurised milk from cows fed on unensiled fodder and reared naturally.
Its geographical area encompasses the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel, the Jura, as well as a few districts and communes of the canton of Berne. It must mature for at least 5 months. Most producers, however, choose to market it from 8 months, and it is then called “classique”. Starting from 10 months’ ripening and going up to 16 months, it becomes “Gruyère réserve”.
The AOC also distinguishes organic Gruyère which, as Jean-François Bielmann (Gruyère marketing director) confided, is mainly intended for export, especially to the German market; because “in Gruyères, people don’t buy organic – it would be almost shameful. Nobody wants it because people know the quality of Gruyère.”
Last category, Gruyère d’Alpage: another method of production, another world, another cheese. For five generations, Jacques Murith’s family has been producing Gruyère d’Alpage. For decades, this producer has been happy to head up to the mountain pastures in early May and delighted to leave them in mid-October. It’s hard work (10 hours a day, seven days a week). Jacques Murith owns three chalets at altitudes of 1,050 m, 1,200 m, and 1,500 m. The man and his cows follow nature: they climb up progressively as the grass appears then come back down to make the most of the second growth.
In his little wooden chalet, Jacques Murith gets up at 5am every day. Cooked in a cauldron over a wood fire the milk, flavoured with all the scents of the mountain flowers, after 8 months of ripening, produces a cheese of a finesse and elegance that left us speechless and whetted our appetite.
Gruyère d’Alpage represents only a tiny portion of production: 500 tonnes as opposed to 29,000 in all for the Gruyère AOC. There are still fifty-five Gruyère d’Alpage producers, but finding successors proves difficult. You have to be prepared to live in great solitude for months on end to produce a cheese that is not very highly priced.
We visited on the day of the désalpe – a day of celebration, when men and herds leave the mountain pastures. The cows, decked out with beautiful bells and flowers, parade proudly through the streets of the villages on their way. “I can see in their gait, their bearing, that they are proud,” says Jacques Murith. Did he see that we were too, for having shared these rare moments with him?