Flying into Switzerland I am always amazed by the mountains. The world famous Alps, home to mountaineers, skiers and even stories about elephants crossing (not sure how this ever happened). In my visits to the country I have always been impressed by the pristine wonder of nature. The green is vibrant and the sky is so clearly blue, the hills to the Alps are amazing and the cows always appear so healthy. I have attributed this to the respect that the Swiss have for their country. There are hikers everywhere and the people that I meet are excited for the summer to swim, the fall to bike, the winter to ski and the spring to smell the flowers.
It is clear that the respect for the land is fully embraced and reflected in the culture of food as well, which clearly begins and ends with cheese. Every mother, father and child is proud of the cheese heritage and each has a favorite cheese and a favorite way to eat cheese. Everyone eats cheese in Switzerland — at breakfast, in sandwiches at lunch, for snacks, at dinner and for dessert. This is my kind of country!!!
I had the opportunity to visit a few cheese production facilities in July with a group of Whole Foods Market team members from around the country. A few were making their first trip to Europe...it was fantastic. How wonderful that your first trip to Europe was to Switzerland to taste some of the best traditionally produced cheeses in the world! We began every day before 6 am to "follow the milk."
I feel this is the most important part of cheesemaking. Why? Because without healthy animals and good clean milk, one cannot make great cheese...it all begins on the farm. I have found the Swiss farmers to be passionate — almost effervescent— when talking about their animals. The average size herds that we work with on our traditional Swiss products, Le Gruyère and Emmentaler, is around 30 cows! The low number of animals is incredible. In America we are used to herds being in the hundreds and even thousands, so 30 cows is almost inconceivable, but it is true.
The Le Gruyère production facility was a unique experience for the group. Switzerland is made up of 26 Cantons. Cantons are like our states and each has attributes for the area and the region. Switzerland has four official languages. When you look at a map, you can see why. The country borders Italy, Austria, Germany and France. The Le Gruyere production, which is in western Switzerland, borders on France, which means the farmers and cheesemakers all speak French, thus "Le Gruyère."
The farmers are very proud of the animals and the cheese that their milk is used to produce. Le Gruyère is an AOC (Appellation d
) cheese, which means that there are regulations around the production of this cheese including: how the animals are raised and fed, how often the milk gets delivered, mandating use of traditional copper vats during production, how the milk is heated, the use of only unpasteurized milk, that the curds are heated after being cut and put into forms that are pressed and, lastly, how the cheese is washed and aged. The dedication and training of the cheesemakers is extensive and only a master cheesemaker can oversee the production of Le Gruyère.
We had the opportunity to view the production, which from beginning to end takes hours. Milk from the night before is mixed in the copper vats with the morning milking to begin the process. It is magic and the resulting cheese, which is creamy, nutty and in some cases spicy, is a delight to taste. I love this cheese in Fondue and even though it is a cheese I love to eat year round, the fall is my favorite time to enjoy this Swiss treasure. Tasting it with the fantastic range of apple varieties is a treat. I like it with Honeycrisps and Galas! Even though Switzerland is a world away, you can come and get a piece of history with Le Gruyère every day. Try a piece!