Switzerland is famous for many things, not the least of which is their cheese. Particularly popular is a hard yellow cheese called Gruyère, named after the Swiss town of Gruyères where it originated. During a recent visit to this picturesque little town, we stopped by La Maison du Gruyère (The House of Gruyere) for a 2-hour tour of their cheese-making factory. I’m a bit of a cheese freak, so I expected to like the tour, but it exceeded my expectations in every way!
The tour started off on a good note when we paid the 14 CHF admission fee and received not only two tickets to tour the museum and cheese-making facility, but also two packages of cheese samples. Lunch!!
I secreted away both packages in my purse, hoping Travis wouldn’t notice, then we pushed our way through the overly secure electronic turnstile to enter the museum.
Who tries to break into a cheese museum?
The fun officially began when we met Cherry the Cow, the effervescent voice of our English audio guide tour. She introduced us to the poya, the highest alpine meadows where cows graze during the summer, and explained the seasonal movement of cows to the lowlands for the winter months. We viewed photos of their favorite plants to graze, then stood a bit stumped in front of a long line of peculiar metal chest-high rods in front of each flower.
Ever a Sherlock, Travis finally realized that the cylinders atop these rods were filled with scents corresponding to the photographs of the flowers behind them. It was a first for me to smell cumin flower. Another one of the plants smelled like vanilla, but sweeter and fresher than any vanilla bean.
We worked our way through the small but fun and interactive museum to the fromagerie where ponds of liquid cheese were sloshing around in large vats. Though Cherry the Cow would only allow us to view the cheese-making room from the floor above, we stood transfixed for well over 30 minutes while we watched a comprehensive video about the process that was unfolding below us.
Shortly before our arrival, one of the vats was piped full of milk and cultures were added to mature it. This was followed by rennet, a liquid ingredient extracted from cow stomach.
A corpse is meat gone bad. Well, and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk. ~James Joyce
The rennet curdles the milk, turning it into what looks like one huge solid wheel of cheese on its side in the vat. Special knives called “cheese harps” rotate to cut the curds into tiny kernels while the batch is gradually heated to 57°C/135°F.
As soon as the cheese curds are the right consistency, the entire vat is drained into small molds on the other side of the room amid thick plumes of steam. While the curds are trapped in the round molds, the whey – or watery byproduct that doesn’t become curds – drains from the molds to the basin below.
The cheese-makers mark each mass of curds to indicate the number of the wheel and the specific dairy before adding numbers to mark the date of production. They then seal the molds and leave them for up to 20 hours to be gradually compressed, further reducing the water content.
Once ready, the wheels are moved to the next room where they soak in a relaxing brine bath for nearly a full day. During this time, the cheese wheels absorb nearly half of their salt content.
The tour ends with a visit to the maturing cellar. Rows of cheese rounds are in their final phase of production after removal from their salt spa. The wheels will remain here on rough spruce slabs in their humid nest for the long process of curing, a process that could take up to a year.
Overcome with hunger during the tour, we returned to the cheese-making room to watch the video again. Lounging on a bench, we cracked open our sample packages. First sharing a tiny niblet with Trav, we sampled the wedge that had been aged for 6 months. I could tell from the look of distaste on his face that the distinctive bitey flavor didn’t strike his fancy. Not a lover of cheese like I am, he conceded the rest to me. Slowly munching both of our packages of cheese samples, I pondered the fact that Gruyère cheese has been around since 1115, quite a few centuries before the United States was even a country. No wonder people refer to Gruyère as “aged cheese”.
Gruyere cheese is actually also manufactured in the US, with Wisconsin producing more than any other state.
The oldest continuously operating cheese manufacturer in the US is Crowley Cheese in Vermont, where they’ve been producing cheese since 1824. One of the few true American cheeses, it’s still made by hand.
The absolute best cheese for roasting on a stick over a campfire is squeaky cheese from Tillamook, Oregon. If it’s not on your bucket list, it should be!
What’s up next on our agenda?
Hitting a four-kilometer sledding hill at Moléson-sur-Gruyères – will we even survive?!