Philippe Bardet: Award-winning cheese from the Alps – Romandy’s food of the gods

Gruyère AOC, acclaimed as the food of the gods from Romandy’s mountain re­­gion, has been appreciated by cheese connoisseurs for centuries.

Production is still carried out according to a traditional recipe, which is con­stant­­­ly observed by all partners of the trade organization, namely the dairies, cheese makers and affineurs.

On a daily basis, the collected milk is analyzed and undergoes strict controls. The milk may not be thermally treated before processing. This is to protect the flora that gives Gruyère AOC its unique taste.

The cheese maker adds his own cultures to mature the milk. These are lactic acid bacteria that the cheese maker culti­vates from whey.
Upon completion of the maturation pro­­cess, the cheese maker adds rennet to the vat. This is a completely natural ad­­ditive, which is taken from the stomachs of milk-fed calves.

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It contains enzymes that will make milk visibly curdle within 35 to 40 minutes.

This is the moment when the entire con­­tent of the vat changes its appearance in a matter of three to four minutes. A warm smell spreads through the cheese factory. The cheese maker’s eye is crucial in de­­termining at what exact point to start the production. The culture-en­­riched milk is a living matter. One minute more or less can alter the quality of the Gruyère AOC enough to have an influence on its sale price.

A soon as the curdled milk mass in the vat has reached a firm appearance, the cheese maker slowly stirs it with three big ro­­tating knives (called “cheese harps”), causing the curd to break up into grain-sized particles. This process of “cutting up the curdled milk” takes ten min­­utes and requires no heating. The cheese makers know-how is what matters most.
Gradually, the granular mass is heated to 55 degrees. After heating for 40 to 45 minutes, the cheese maker checks the structure one more time before the cheese mass can be removed.

The mass is poured into moulds, which are specially marked on their edges. A large basin un­­der the steaming moulds collects the drip­­ping whey, which is fed to the pigs.

The work rhythm increases when the cheese mass, now separated from the whey, is pressed into the moulds. The cheese maker has closed off the de­­livery pipes. After the no-longer-needed moulds are removed, the identifying marks are transferred from the ma­­chi­­ne to the sur­­face of the whitish, still grainy mass.

It takes on­­ly a few seconds of pressing for the shape of the mould to become apparent – the outside form and struc­­ture of a whole Gruyère AOC cheese is now recognizable.

Until midday, the Gruyère AOC wheels are gradually submitted to a pressure in­­creasing from 300 to 900 kilogrammes. Each cheese is systematically identified by factory and unit numbers as well as a production date. These marks are de­­rived from casein, the milk protein in the cheese. Even this process does not em­­ploy any foreign or artificial products.

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The Gruyère AOC mark on the edge of the cheese is a way to ensure authenticity and prevent fraud. The technique consists in stamping the mark into the cheese. These marks make each cheese identifiable and traceable.

After 20 hours of pressing, the Gruyère AOC wheels will spend a whole day in a 20-per-cent salt bath, which accounts for half of their salt content.
To the last day, the cheese maker’s work continues in the cellar, which is conditioned to a temperature of 13 to 14 de­­­grees and which lightly smells of am­­monia – an indicator of the Gruyère AOC ripening.

The cheese rind protects the inside of the cheese: It is a special characteristic of the Gruyère AOC. For the first ten days, the cheeses are turned over daily and rubbed with a mixture of salt and water. For the next three months, they are turned over twice a week at first, then weekly, and rubbed with a less salty mixture. This rubbing produces a nice, healthy rind, which ensures an impeccable cheese.

The slow cellar rip­­­ening causes the com­­plex casein fat to break down until easily digestible amino acids ap­­pear.

In more poetic or gastronomic terms: The ripening ennobles the curd body to a creamy and enjoyable cheese.

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After three months, the Gruyère AOC chees­­es are put in the care of an affineur, who will look after them for sev­eral more months before they reach their full flavour. At maturity, the chees­­es are checked and evaluated by a specialist from the Gruyère commission and a full-time cheese maker. The cheeses are checked and evaluated for the presence of openings, their body quality, their taste and their exterior (shape and pre­­ser­va­tion properties).

This is followed by an additional five to twelve months of ageing in the cellar. Five months yield a mild Gruyère AOC, eight or so months the most pop­­ular and most sold half-salty variety, ten or so months the salty type, and a minimum of twelve months the so-called Surchoix. These are all standard qualities; the consumers decide according to their preferences.

So, this is the unalterable path of a Gru­­yère AOC cheese before it reaches the table of the consumer, whether as a snack in a sandwich or on a cheese platter, or as a main dish, from raclette to traditional fondue.

Philippe-BardetThe author is director of the Gruyère trade organization. After training to be a farmer, studying agronomy at the Swiss technical college for agriculture in Zollikofen and graduating as an engineer, Bardet worked for the Swiss farmers’ organization, the farm­­ers’ as­­sociation of the Waadtland (Pro­meterre) and Agora (Romandy branch of­­­­fice of the Swiss farmers’ organization).