We recently spent a full weekend in the Gruyères region of Switzerland just to learn and explore everything we could about this deliciousness. Over just three days, we came back with so much more love for the hard, yellow and extremely versatile cheese. We visited a dairy farm, then a Gruyère cheese factory, and ate tons and tons of the yummy goodness all weekend long while staying at the cutest and friendliest hotel.
Our Swiss weekend in the Gruyères region of Switzerland started off checking into the Auberge de L’Ange. This cute little hotel is run by Paula who had run it less than a year, but was doing a fantastic job. She greeted us and immediately suggested we step into her fantatastic restaurant and get a bite to eat. We chatted off and on and she couldn’t help but notice how enthusiastic we were about cows and cheese and farms, well, and all of it. She walked us over to the locals table and introduced us to her family, a dairy farm owning family and we were immediately invited to come visit the farm and see the morning milking. No one has to twist my arm; we said we’d be there at 6:00 AM!
Oliver, Paula’s husband, woke up early even though it wasn’t his duty to milk the cows. He took us through the barn and explained the entire process of milking and much about the business of dairy farming. This is all new information for me, and even bleary-eyed I was soaking it all in!
This is Oliver’s barn where the cows are brought in and fed twice a day, milked, and taken care of in every possible way. On the exterior of his and many other Swiss barns, you notice their breeding medals and credentials. It looks pretty impressive. The calves were all pushing forward to see what was going on so early in the morning.
And this little girl just wanted to be petted and petted. To keep the dairy farm producing at the same rate, Oliver has to have 20 new female calves to replace the ones that are to old to continue. A cow will produce milk from 12 to 20 years, so they really want to take good care of them. And the cows loved him; this you could tell.
It is amazing how automated dairy farming, as all industries, has become. Each cow has a profile in the computer that keeps daily statistics on milk production as well as other pertinent information. When the cows come to the barn for milking, the amount of milk they produce is logged in, and if they provide more than a certain number of liters of milk they get some grain added to their breakfast of grass. They also know that they can go to the massaging machine and get a good scratching, then they can lay down for a nap or go back outside, their choice. It was so funny to watch the different personalities of the cows and see what they chose to do.
After our tour, Oliver took us up to the barn’s office where we enjoyed some more chatting and a coffee break. He got a twinkle in his eye when asking us if we wanted our coffee the “traditional” way or normal. My philosophy is “when in Rome…” so in he splashes some homemade schnapps. Wow! Good morning Switzerland!
Leaving the farm about 8:30, we learned so many new things about dairy farming, cows, and the hospitality of the Swiss.
The Making of Gruyère Cheese!
All over Switzerland, the veritable land of cheese, you can find huge factory outlet stores that provide a glimpse of the process of making cheese via a video or small presentation, but there are not many old cheese factories left with the original equipment and a traditional system. We were lucky enough to find one to visit in Gruyères region.
As we walk half-way up a small mountain, the dark wood factory beckoned to us with brightly covered patio tables waiting for someone to have some of their famous fondue. As we walked in, we could smell a mix of old wood and cheese. As this is a commercial enterprise, a full on show, we paid our entry and made our way to the back. The large room was turned into an auditorium, but around its edges were still the tools and equipment used in the trade. Behind a glass, where the proprietor has been teaching the ways of cheese-making for over 20 years, the first thing that caught our eyes was this huge vat of boiling goo, with a mixture of old and new to keep it going.
After a quick look around, they showed a film highlighting not only the history of cheese in the Gruyères region, but a complete how-to. Then we moved over to the workshop where the käse-meister (cheese master) launched into the age-old method of making Gruyère and other types of cheeses.
The milk is boiled for about 20 hours in this large vat, over a wood fire, but carefully monitored for a consistent temperature. The käse-meister stirs, cuts, and draws a shovel through the cheese so that it cooks evenly.
When the correct consistently, he pulls a mult-wired cutter through the soft cheese, then he and his apprentice (grandson) drop a cheesecloth on a form down to capture the cheese and they carry it over to the buckets to settle and cool. Heavy objects are laid on the buckets to squeeze out all the extra cheese water. Then they are set in molds and left to age.
When the demonstration and questions were all done, the show was over, but the best part was yet to come. Outside the tables were set up for various tastings. Some folks had an early lunch and gobbled down some steaming fondue. We opted for a cheese tasting board that included eight different types of cheese. They were all delicious, so of course we had to toddle back in and buy some cheese to take home.
A full and informative morning, we wandered around the area some more and just enjoyed the farm animals, the mountain air, and our full bellies. Jim couldn’t help but to get a little “cheesy” and have his photo taken as the next käse-meister.
Since we were in the region, our first stop was Gruyères village. A walled medieval city perched at the top of a steep hill, perfect to ward off those pesky invaders, Gruyères is absolutely gorgeous. The day we went, we arrived quite late in the afternoon and they had just finished with a military parade. Folks were dressed up in traditional Swiss-wear or in military uniforms.
It’s a popular destination, and definitely one of those places that you will hear all kinds of languages. Going late, the tourists were all leaving. We sat down and enjoyed one of the specialties of the town, raspberries with clotted cream. The cream is famously thick and decadent, owing its richness to the green grasses of the Alps where the cows summer.
It tasted phenomenal, but on top of that it was just gorgeous. Picture us sitting at a table on the balcony over-looking the town as the streets empty and the quietness settles in. Pure heaven.
There were plenty of great restaurants, museums, and a stunning castle. We wandered and wandered and enjoyed having the town almost to ourselves.
Of course, one of the main dishes that uses the famous Gruyère cheese that we’ve come to love so much is fondue! I was told the very best recipes were the ones that combined two cheeses, Gruyère with Emmental. I have yet to make this myself, but I have looked up recipes and it’s really simple. You melt the cheeses with little white wine and a dash of nutmeg. Dipping in those cubed stale bread, or better yet some boiled potatoes, is an activity that I would never get tired of.
Apparently the Swiss can never take the chance of being out of fondue ingredients, because at one dairy we drove by that was all closed up, we saw this vending machine that conveniently sells everything you need to make it, plus it carries the clotted cream and some meringues so that you just have to add a berry or fruit and it provides your dessert as well. So clever!
Not being able to eat fondue three meals per day, even if we wanted to, we tried another great dish…a croute. This delectable dish was a piece of toast, with ham, and egg, smothered in…yep! You guessed it. Gruyère cheese. Amazing!
Of course, it’s cheese, so you really don’t have to do much to it. Just eat it with a couple of gherkins, or on a piece of bread and onion sprouts. Delicious!
We loved our Swiss trip with all things related to cheese so much, that we plan to go back in a few weeks to see the cows come home! I’ve written about this before, and it’s fantastic to see how excited the town gets, and fascinating to see how they dress the cows up for the occasion. So even though this series is finished, we’ll be updating it soon with a new installment.
What do you think of Gruyère cheese? Would you devote an entire weekend to it?