900 Years of Gruyère

Happy Birthday to Gruyère! Fabricated in the alpage farms of Switzerland since the year 1115, this classic Swiss alpine cheese celebrated 900 years of production in 2015, with producers and distributors marking the event this September with tastings and festivals. Gruyère, named for village of Gruyères in the Canton Fribourg, only gained AOP status in 2001; before that, cheeses were produced in France as well under the Gruyère name (albeit not without controversy). Following AOP protection, however, it was officially designated a Swiss cheese, and one originating from the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura, and in a few municipalities of the canton of Bern. (Roth Kase — an American cheesemaker that had for a long time called one its cheeses the Grand Cru Gruyere — changed it to simply Grand Cru, in recognition of the AOP, after they were bought by the swiss dairy conglomerate Emmi and became Emmi Roth).

Gruyere is the archetypal “Alpine”, a large-format cooked, pressed, pale cornflower yellow wheel with a dense, smooth texture and all the classic notes of fresh cream, melted butter, tropical fruits and toasted nuts that one might seek in such cheeses. It’s widely available these days, and the quality is generally good, even in the ones you’ll find in any supermarket, but there are definitely a few standouts versions. One of my favorites is the Gruyère 1655, affinaged by Fromage Gruyère SA in Bulle, Switzerland. Fromage Gruyère SA was founded in 1916, and works with a diversity of local dairies and alpage cheesemakers to source their wheels and provide economic opportunity to the small dairies that are so central to the Swiss identity and culture. 

The term “Alpine” is not without controversy as well; for the Swiss, an “Alpine” cheese is very specifically one originating in and fabricated in the Alps, with the Alpage varieties being a prized subset of that classification. For Americans, however, “Alpine” has become more of a broad definition of style. We tend to think of any cheese of the large-format, cooked, pressed variety, such as would be produced in the Alps, as “alpine-style”, whether it’s produced on a Swiss mountaintop, a New England valley, or an urban creamery. I don’t expect this to change any time soon, but it’s something to be aware of.

I had the good fortune to tour the massive vaults in Bulle this past summer, and saw the many hundreds of yards of cheese stretching out and up, row after row of some of the best Gruyère’s produced in the world. My guide took care to point out the Alpage versions in particular, which are fabricated in much smaller batches, in traditional mountain cheese rooms, and have a greater complexity and depth of flavor and aroma to them. As my guide told me, the Alpage versions tend to have subtle smokey notes that are missing from the industrial versions, due to being cooked in copper kettles over wood fires. In addition to being stamped with “ALPAGE”, every wheel has a producer code printed on it, and you can go online and track down exactly which creamery every wheel came from with that code.

Robots roll up and down the aisles, pulling cheeses out to wash and flip them. This industrialization might turn some off, but when one considers the sheer number and size of the wheels and the not insignificant damage that manhandling them can do to an affineur’s body after years of daily work in the caves, this is one touch of modernity that does make sense. Humans are still directly involved in the daily care and monitoring of the cheeses, they just aren’t lifting and flipping the 80 Lb wheels. 

Columbia Cheese distributes the Gruyère 1655, and you can find it at cheese shops in NYC and elsewhere (you can see more about alpine village dairies in this post about Columbia’s tasting event with Bedford Cheese). Historical documents indicate that 1655 is the year that this cheese, already produced for centuries in the region, formally took on the name of the village (at that time written “Gruiere”, “Gruier”, “Gruere” and other variants). Legend has it that the Count of Gruyère, having taken shelter with the cheesemaker Rime brothers following an attack by highway bandits, sampled the humble cheese that they produced at their farm, and was so entranced by it, he declared that henceforth it would be produced for his family exclusively (with generous financial renumeration) and named for his village. Thankfully, the forces of social change meant that this cheese eventually became available to the general public, but the name stuck.

Fromagerie Le Cret, located in Le Crêt-près-Semsales, Fribourg, are the makers of the 1655. Cheesemaker Jean-Marie Dunand works closely with Fromage Gruyère SA to ensure that every batch meets the exacting standards required to earn the 1655 stamp (as well as several Gruyère Association Medaille d'Or). The farm sits high in the Fribourg alps, and works with 8-10 local farms to source the milk, produced by cows feeding on the rich and diverse flora of the alpine pastures. The wheels age for three months at Le Cret before being sent to the main facility in Bulles.

During my Swiss sojourn I also got the chance to visit the village of Gruyères and tour the castle that bears the same name. The town is a charming little picture postcard of an experience, decorated with the Crane that is its symbol. Make sure to try another one of the regional specialties, the Double-Creme with Meringue cookies. Yep, you’re basically dipping sugar into fat, but what could possibly be bad about that! There are also some delightfully anachronistic touches: H.R. Giger, best known as the artist responsible for the aesthetic of the Alien films, was from Gruyères, and the museum that honors him is located there to this day, which results in an amusing mix of cheese pilgrims and sci-fi fanboys wandering the cobbled streets. 

So happy birthday to Gruyère, Get yourself a wedge and stick a candle in it to celebrate! (although you’ll probably need a full wheel if you want to go for the full 900).