It’s one of the world’s best-loved cheeses. Perfect for melting, it’s the gooey glue that keeps your classic croque monsieur together, the creamy bubbling magma that deliciously coats every skewered bit of food that you dip in a traditional fondue pot. We’re talking, of course, about Gruyère — a carefully crafted product that supports an entire area in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
How much do you know about the making of this magnificent Swiss cheese?
My foray into this time-honored tradition started early, at about 6 a.m., when the dairy farmers begin arriving at Gumefens Dairy in the sleepy village of the same name, located in the district of Gruyère. Blurry-eyed and clutching a cup of strong coffee, I watch as Jean Bernard Müller parks his car in front of the dairy to deliver the morning milk from his 25 cows. Gregory Maisonneuve, the 32-year-old cheesemaker for the facility, steps outside to greet the farmer and check the light, grassy raw milk. Dressed head to toe in white, from his rubber boots to the water-proof apron to the cap on his head, the fresh-faced Maisonneuve takes a sample, weighs and gently tests the goods before nodding an agreement and sending Müller on his way.
“Milk,” Maisonneuve says in French, “is a like a woman — it needs softness and tenderness.” He should know. After all, he sees about 10,000 liters of the stuff every day, and Müller is just one of 16 farmers who will deliver milk that morning. This process happens twice a day, 365 days a year, and allows Maisonneuve to create high-quality Gruyère that gets shipped all over the world. Overall, the Gumefens Dairy churns out about 270 tons of Gruyère each year. Based on figures provided by the Emmi Group, the leading exporter of Swiss cheese, the United States alone consumes about this much each month.
You may wonder what makes this dense, unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese so special. And, for that matter, what importance does the region have in its manufacture? Under Swiss law, there are strict guidelines for the process. (You may have seen the name of this cheese on other non-Swiss labels, namely the French variety, but it’s now accepted that true Gruyère must come from the region of Gruyère.) For Maisonneuve, each of his 70-pound wheels falls under an AOP (appellation d’origine protégée), the protected designation of origin that ensures that the milk used to make the cheese comes from farms nearby and that the dairy cows themselves eat only fresh or dried grass. The goal: to use the best milk to make the highest-quality cheese. Each wheel must earn 18 points or higher on a rating scale of 20, judged on things like color, consistency, taste, texture and the amount of gas bubbles (in this case, fewer is better).
Gumefens Dairy, which opened in 2013, is just one of 170 small-production facilities making Gruyère in the region, totaling about 29,000 tons annually. Almost 12,000 tons are exported around the world, and about 3,000 tons are sent to the United States. Each dairy and every wheel of cheese has its own number. That way, a skilled monger can pinpoint exactly where the goods came from. And with each sale, not only are the cheesemakers provided for, but the farmers and workers in their respected communities. At Maisonneuve’s three-year space, they provide a living for 20 families, both the farmers and the folks who work at the dairy. With that fact in mind, it’s easy to find an excuse to eat this luscious, nutty and slightly sweet cheese, a type that gets even more nuanced when aged.
Here’s a look at the step-by-step process: