Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2009-09-08
L'Étivaz AOC is a hard raw-milk cheese made in the mountains between 1,000 and 2,000 metres altitude by 68 families with 2,800 Simmental dairy cows. During the cheese-making season, from 10 May to 10 October, intrepid ramblers can discover Étivaz up yonder - way up yonder...
What on earth was I thinking when I said yes? When I agreed to hike high into the mountains for... cheese? Granted, not just any cheese, but an alpine cheese made during the short summer season from the milk of Simmental cows which feed on the flowers and rich grasses of their high-altitude pastures, giving the cheese an incomparable flavour. But did I really have to go up so high? I was told that from the alpine chalet the panorama of the valley and the Alps of the Vaud is sublime. Yes indeed, thought I, at 1,800 metres there can’t be too many rooftops blocking the view...
But Étivaz AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée, protected designation of origin) can also be sampled in the valley. I might have considered that simple fact before setting out. In L’Étivaz, a charming little village entirely devoted to cheese, there’s a pleasant milk bar right next to the maturing cellars which sells the best Étivaz cheeses, young and old, whole or in rebibes*. One can buy a package or a slice, then settle down in the shade with a glass of chilled Chasselas and savour this devilishly divine cheese which has sealed the reputation of the Pays d’Enhaut.
If you wish to go up to the chalet, you must first sign in at Château d'Oex’s Office de Tourisme and buy some freshly baked bread to take along. Those who work summers up in the alpine pastures spend two full months amongst family, cows and pigs; they tend not to venture down to the valley to do their daily shopping.
Whatever the cheese, there are always pigs in the summer farms, since pigs are fond of whey, a dairy by-product which has few other uses. There are always locally prepared sausages, hams and other delicatessen meats available in the regions where summer alpine cheeses are produced.
Le Pays d’Enhaut translates as ‘The Land Up Above’ (or, less poetically, the Highlands), a fairy-tale name if ever there was one. Erstwhile home of the Counts of Gruyère, district belonging to the Canton de Vaud (along with Vevey, Montreux and La Tour-de-Peilz), it is not so very far from the vineyards of Aigle and the waters of Lake Geneva. Le Pays d’Enhaut counts some ten villages, including Rougemont, Château d’Oex (pronounced Château d’Ê) and Rossinière, which are all superb. Furthermore, in summer the chocolate train which links Montreux, Gruyère and Broc passes through it. Simply put: this is one splendid site.
From milk to wheel
The copper cauldrons where the milk is heated hold 1,000 litres; evening milk is added to that of the morning. Freshly drawn milk is left to settle and cool down so the cream can rise to the surface. Then, as L’Étivaz is an AOC cheese and there are rules to be followed, the cauldrons are heated over a traditional wood fire.
The cream is carefully set aside, of course, as it is a necessary ingredient in all sorts of gourmet delicacies made in this food lovers’ paradise, including ‘macaronis du chalet,’ meringues and white coffee. And if any is left over - and some always is - out come the wooden spoons and it is enjoyed to the last drop... divine!
With ancestral savoir-faire, cheesemakers transform the milk into a wheel which spends its first night under a cheese press before being replaced by the next batch. Wheels are rubbed with Bex salt and kept in the alps on spruce slats for at least seven days at a temperature of 10° to 16° C. They are then sent down to the valley to be matured, by means of a handcrafted cable-car contraption which only a cheese-maker would dare to use: a simple board hooked onto a cable which brushes against treetops and swings in the wind.
Once at the Cooperative of L'Etivaz Alpine Cheese Producers, the wheels are soaked in brine for 24 hours before being placed on ‘tablars’, or raw (e.g. imperatively non-planed or sanded) spruce shelves. They are then turned every five days and will spend at least four and a half months in maturing cellars. After eight months, L'Étivaz is considered ripened. Old Étivaz will have spent an entire year in the cellar, during which its flavour develops, its character becomes spicier and its personality more pronounced. Some wheels, once matured, may be dried for two and a half years in well-ventilated mountain lofts. Each year, the cooperative produces some 12,000 to 14,000 Étivaz wheels weighing 10 to 38 kilos each.
Life in summer mountain pastures is a life of open-air labours. The cows, stables and pigs must all be tended to; cheese wheels must be salted and cauldrons cleaned; wood must be cut and exhausted ramblers who seem to have passed out in the grass must be reanimated and fed. Even the hardiest hikers do not climb up to the mountain chalets just for the fun of it - they also go for meals shared with the cheesemakers’ families, meals which are served next to the cauldron where milk lies curdling. One may even spend the night. Though the comfort is rather Spartan, the experience of sunrise and sunset over the mountains, the warm welcome and the kindness of the host families (not to mention the macaroni, cream and meringues) make the lack of privacy and aching limbs well worth the effort.
Norbert Chabloz’s ranch
In the region where Étivaz cheese is produced, atop the Pra-Cornet plateau next to the Col des Mosses, Norbert Chabloz herds, on horseback, his Simmental cows. The red and white spotted Simmental gives 5,000 litres of milk each year and is quite possibly the world’s best dairy cow.
Norbert Chabloz is a genuine cowboy who only leaves the saddle when he has absolutely no choice. He cares for his herd and, keeping only the cream, takes the milk to the cooperative which transforms it into Étivaz. His ranch buvette, or snack shack, which is open to the public, is a veritable festival of raclette, macaroni and meringues… Visitors may choose to visit the area on horseback or sleep in teepees amidst cows whose bells tinkle through the night. Terribly romantic!
But the adventure cannot end here: I’ve had two helpings of meringue and double-crème, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself, but it really is time to head back down. I’m told that downhill is even harder than uphill! All in the name of an exceptional alpine cheese.
* Thin parings cut with a special tool. Étivaz AOC extra-hard is sliced into rebibes which are nibbled with aperitifs.
Tourist office of Château d'Oex
Tel: +41(0)26 924 25 25
Association pour le développement du Pays-d'Enhaut (Association for the development of the Pays d'Enhaut)
Tel: +41(0)26 924 72 80
Cheese cellars of l’Étivaz
Tel: +41(0)26 924 62 81
La Maison de L'Étivaz (House of L'Étivaz)
Tel: +41(0)26 924 70 60
Tourist Office of the Canton de Vaud
Tel: +41(0)21 613 26 22
Norbert Chabloz’s snack shack, horse riding and teepees
Col des Mosses
Tel: +41(0)342 30 51
Country butcher and delicatessen, Michel Combremont
Tel: +41(0)26 924 62 72
Simmental breeders’ federation