The Gruyère Experience in Switzerland, Part 1
We came to Switzerland to visit Benno and Nora, friends we had met long long ago in Costa Rica. Back in 2015, she worked at a winery, and his family owned a dairy farm in the AOP region for Gruyère cheese. Then fast forward 7 years to today, and now they live on that dairy farm. Benno runs the show, caring for the cows, plowing the cornfields and potatoes. They’re full blown farmers.
Knowing all this, we were ready for our authentic Swiss farm experience! As soon as we arrived, I could see posters on the barn walls saying “Our milk is used for Gruyère cheese!” and other official cheese signs. We headed inside for our first cheese lunch and then took a tour around the grounds to see all the equipment, animals, facilities, etc. We surely were going to have an agricultural experience during our time there.
The farm routine
That afternoon, Benno hopped in the tractor and pulled the milk tank off to the Kaseri (how they call a creamery). We started to learn the routine of the farm, breakfast with the family and the intern, Lynn, just after they finish the morning milking. A big lunch around noon with the same group. The afternoon milking happens around 4:30 and then at 5:30 pm, the second tanker of milk is brought over to the Kaseri. This usually puts dinner around 6:15 pm which is a pretty chill meal of something kind of light, and then everyone calls it an early night around 8:30 or 9 and repeat.
Neil and I both grew up in suburbia so when we were kids, our family went to the local grocery store to get food and nobody really ever thought about where it came from. Now as adults, it’s something we’ve really taken an interest in and whenever we have the opportunity to visit a farm, factory or somewhere in the countryside, we jump on it.
So being at the farm was pretty exciting for us. I leaped at the chance to ride the tractor on the second or third day to bring the afternoon milk to the creamery. It was cool to see Benno pumping it from his portable tanker into the main tank at the milk coop and knowing that it would soon be turned into cheese. Although milk is brought over twice a day, it’s only made once per day, as part of the AOP regulations.
Riding around in the Tractor
Benno could see that we wanted to be involved and learn more so another day when he had a full day of tractor trips, he invited us along. Neil went in the morning to pick up the farm equipment and then watched as they spread the compost over the field to enrich the soil. I went after lunch and we drove the tractor through town and over a dam in order to return the equipment Neil had gone to pick up. I asked if tractors are street legal and how this all works as we chugged along at like 30 mph. And yes, of course it was, you just can’t drive on the interstate with a tractor. How else would you get the equipment from place to place?
I also took this time to learn a little more about the cows at the farm. In the past, I’ve come across a few cow posters listing the different breeds but I had never really committed it to memory. Benno let me know that his cows were known as red cows and that they are a crossbreed between New Zealand and Swiss cows. When you look at them more closely, you’ll see that they look like they have a little hairstyle on their heads and I thought that was pretty funny.
Holstein cows are the black and white ones that a lot of people use for dairy but they require a lot more feed. They eat a mix of hay, grass, corn and soy which causes them to produce a greater quantity of milk. It’s a trade off though because it takes more to feed them. Benno’s cows only eat grass so they are a better option for cows that graze and live in the pasture.
Another afternoon, I rode along when Benno brought the afternoon milk again and went inside the creamery. Nora had given us the list of what cheeses to pick up and I’m pretty sure we got one of everything. We came back with a pretty full bag of cheese and passed the cheese vending machine outside before getting back into the tractor to go home. Yup, you heard that right, they had a cheese vending machine outside! How is it that I don’t permanently live there?
Visiting the House of Gruyère
It was the end of our first week and time to go see the House of Gruyère! It’s an interactive cheese factory with audio tours, educational displays, and a gift shop at the end. Benno had never gone there before, so he came to check it out too. As you can imagine, it was like Disney World for me, snapping pictures left and right and we hadn’t even gone inside yet.
Once we entered, we saw the cheese cave viewing area. Wheels of Gruyère as far as the eye can see, all lined up on spruce wood shelves. And in the middle, a cheese robot! This robot’s job is to flip the wheels at certain intervals throughout their life as well as wash them off periodically. If I was ever going to get excited about robots, this was the time!
We paid for our audio tours and received 3 prepackaged cheese samples. We passed lots of pictures describing the history of making Gruyère and Benno gave us the crash course. Next we arrived at the cheese making viewing area. I mentioned the AOP rules for Gruyère before but the cheese making side of it is pretty strict.
Neil and I have been on cheese making tours before in both large and small facilities so we had a leg up on what was going on. Not to mention the fact that I’ve made cheese at the Art of Cheese School in Colorado, too! We watched the cheese being heated up and stirred in the giant copper pots and saw the other copper pot where curds are cut with the giant cheese knives. And then observed the workers filling the forms, putting in the casein marks, and then putting the lid on so they can get pressed for 16 hours into a wheel shape. There was a video that showed what they look like when they come out of the forms and they’re pretty rubbery and fragile to pick up.
To get a little more specific about those cheese wheels I’ve got some numbers to share. It takes 4800 liters of milk (1270 gallons) to produce the 12 wheels of cheese in the forms that are lined up along the wall. That math converts to 400 L (105 2/3 gallons) of milk for one wheel of cheese that will weigh 35 KG (77 lbs). So when they are handling that semi solid wheel, it’s pretty heavy.
And here’s some more details about the cows. Each day, every cow eats around 100 KG (220 lbs) of grass and drinks 85 L (22 1/2 gallons) of water in order to produce 25 L (6 1/2 gallons) of milk in peak conditions. We did learn from Benno that with climate change, they’re not achieving this level of milk right now.
The grass isn’t growing so well because there hasn’t been much rain. This also means there’s not a lot of water available so it’s all relevant! His cows have been eating fodder, clover plants, that have to be brought into the barn. Then the cows go back out to pasture to get their exercise. Helps put things in perspective when you sit down and think how the weather has been changing!
Gruyère cheese has been around over 1000 years, first being mentioned in writings back in 1115. The official name of Gruyère cheese came quite a while later in 1655. Back then things were much more old fashioned. The cows would be marched up the mountainside in the summertime where the grass was more plentiful. The farmers would go live there too and all the cheese making would take place on site. There were copper pots that hung over fires to cook the milk. Then instead of cutting curds, the cheese maker would use a big cloth to gather the curds and then put them into forms. It was much more of a handmade process then! And once the weather started to cool down, the cows would carry these giant wheels of cheese back down the mountain. And to this day, there’s still some farmers that follow this tradition.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the official rules and regulations took hold when Gruyère became AOP. But at this point, all Gruyère cheese makers had to start following certain practices, including our friend Benno. He spoke with us about now, 20 years later, there are some farmers that want to start bringing technology to their farms and that those AOP guidelines have made it a bit difficult.
Once we covered all this history and rules of the cheese, we were at the end of the museum. Benno made his way back out to the playground to see Nora and the kids. I felt like I had missed a few things so I took another lap around on my own. At this point, I listened to a few parts of the audio tour lead by Cherry the cow. How creative! She narrates the whole story of being a cow in Switzerland and roaming around the fields. Then she suggests that you stop and smell the canisters that contain some of the things she’d eat in the field such as flower, grass, and hay. So of course, I had to “stop and smell the flowers”. I read a few more things and then I was back at the end of the route.
Neil had been exploring the gift shop and finding all the local delicacies. He picked up a merengue dessert, a green liqueur, and a bag of heart-shaped potato chips. I was more interested in the trinkets. I found a little tray for our nephew, a pair of socks for me, and snapped a few photos of the cut wheels of Gruyère.
Before we left, we took one last photo at the silly face cutout and headed back to the car. Next we’d be heading to the town of Gruyères (which we didn’t even know existed before that day) in order to see the castle and explore a bit. And from there, we’d head to Cailler Chocolate factory. What a delicious day! But wait, that’s not the end of our story yet.
Tasting multiple Gruyère samples
We told you about when we went to the creamery and bought all the cheese, well at that point we picked up three different aged samples of Gruyère. Although I did get three samples at the tour, I waited until a few days later to record any tasting notes back at the farm.
The minimum Gruyère must be aged to follow the AOP guidelines is 5 months so we tried this age to begin. The sample smelled like both milk and butter, tasted a little dry and crunchy with flavors of milk. Neil noticed the level of firmness although it wasn’t aged for very long. Our next slice of cheese was more aged, probably around a year. It didn’t have much noticeable aromas but it did have a nuttier, richer flavor than the first. The final cheese would be classified as “aged” and it too was different than the one before it. I picked up tart aromas, a creamy texture and I think it was a little more crumbly when we cut it up. Neil found it to be creamy with crystals.
So now that we’ve learned the farm routine, the cheesemaking rules, saw where the cheese is made, eaten the cheese, there’s only one missing piece. Would I be able to milk a cow at Benno’s farm? Since I’ve been writing about cheese, it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind. I’ve actually asked at a few other farms but it was never the right time to make it happen. Well, it was finally time. On one of our final days at the farm, Benno said to come down to the barn around 4pm and Lynn and his dad, Pieter, would lead me through milking a cow. But you’ll have to wait until the second part of this entry to hear about it :).