Today I visited La Maison du Gruyère (The House of Gruyère), a cheese dairy near Gruyères, Switzerland in the Fribourg countryside, where you can learn the entire cheese making process and do a cheese tasting afterwards!
Milk from Cows who Vacation in the Swiss Alps
It all starts with milk, from cows who spend their summers feeding on grass up in the Swiss alps, a vital part of Swiss culture marked with colorful traditions (see more about this below under “Fast Facts”). Gruyère cheese is still made according to a traditional recipe dating back to 1115 AD. At the cheese dairy, the milk is delivered by farmers twice a day and the cheese is made 3-4 times a day. You can watch the entire process and see the cheese makers at work—a perfect way to immerse yourself in Swiss culture.
Cheese Making 101
The cheese floor is dominated by four large copper kettle vats that work in succession to process the cheese quickly, each holding cheese in various states. First, fermenting agents and enzymes are added to curdle the milk. Then the curds are cut into grains. The grains and whey are heated to 131℉ (55℃) for 40 minutes. From the final copper vat, the cheese is pumped through unseen pipes beneath the floor into a series of small plastic molds where the cheese is pressed into wheels, the whey is drained away, and the wheels get marked with organic labels that list traceable batch information (for quality control). All this time white-aproned cheese makers go about hand checking everything and making constant modifications.
The Life of Cheese
Once the cheese has been pressed into cheese wheels, it’s time for the 24 hour salt bath. The salty water is never changed, but they say that’s what gives Gruyère cheese its unique taste. From the salt baths the cheeses go into the cheese cellar, a refrigerated cabin where 7,000 wheels of cheese do time as they ripen. When you peer into the cheese cellar, it’s nothing but cheese, cheese, and more cheese in every direction. Cheese robots, with red Cylon eyes, do the job of constantly rotating every block of cheese as they age.
Tasting the Cheeses
The best part comes at the end when you get to sample the cheeses! They come in various stages of maturity, tasting mild, semi-salty and super salty. I loved the older aged cheeses because you can taste the hardened minerals in them.
I also discovered a cool little fact: aged hard cheeses manufactured using traditional methods, such as Gruyère AOC, lose all of their lactose, meaning those who are lactose-intolerant can safely chow down on them (but be careful, the label must include AOC to actually have come from this dairy in Switzerland, otherwise it may have been commercially manufactured somewhere else and could contain lactose). Haven’t you ever worried about becoming lactose intolerant and not being able to eat all those great cheeses? Maybe that’s just me, but now my mind is completely at ease.
The name Gruyère has become synonymous with a type of cheese, but only cheeses with the label “Gruyère AOC” actually come from this region in Switzerland, which regulates all their cheeses with precision. AOC stands for appellation d’origine contrôlée, which translates to “controlled designation of origin”. This mark of quality is awarded to regional products made using only traditional methods and know how.
“Poya” and “Désalpe”
The traditional Swiss customs of “Poya” and “Désalpe” mark the cows’ ascent to and descent from the Swiss alpine pastures each year.
Poya: Every year at the end of spring, cow bells clamor as cows go up to the mountains with the “train de chalet,” a procession including a blue cart filled with every implement needed for cheese making. The cows spend their summers grazing up there in the alps.
Désalpe: At the end of September, the season’s work is done, and this also means pay day is coming. The herds of cows are decorated with flowers, costumes are donned, and an overall festive air permeates.
Cheese and Lactose:
Hard cheeses lose their lactose, and when aged over a long period of time with traditional aging methods, are known to have their lactose content reduced to just about nothing. However, be careful: cheeses manufactured by modern processes do not have the same lactose reducing properties, and aren’t carefully regulated in the way Gruyère AOC is.
Where to Learn More about Cheese Making
La Maison du Gruyère
CH- 1663 Pringy-Gruyères
Phone +41 (0) 26 921 84 00