Photographed by Nina Gallant | Styled by Chantal Lambeth
It’s not easy to grow crops in the mountains, and before scaling rocky peaks was considered recreation, there was little reason to meddle with the steep slopes. Around 6,000 years ago, however, climatic fluctuations in the Alps led to variable temperatures and high-altitude forests were unable to regenerate during colder winters. As a result, tree lines descended, transforming woods into summertime grasslands suitable for grazing. Locals found a way to adapt to the harsh environment: Families, each with a few cows, formed villages lower in the valleys and herded animals collectively at high altitudes in warm weather. Here, on alpage (mountain pastures), were huge quantities of milk to process. The best way to preserve milk for winter? Make cheese, of course.
And so it continues: On an alp near the village of Gruyère in the Fribourg region, Beat Piller and his parents awaken at dawn to transform milk into Gruyère d’Alpage and Vacherin Fribourgeois. Smoke from a wood-burning fire, which heats milk in copper vats, fills the room as Piller and his mother grab hold of either end of a cheesecloth and dip it into the vat. Using fine-tuned senses, they heat, measure, and distribute curds with machine-like precision.
In Switzerland, traditional cheesemaking serves many functions. Without the low-intensity, seasonal cow grazing that helps to regenerate and maintain them, these grasslands—hotspots of biodiversity— would begin to disappear. “Producing these cheeses helps us to maintain the environment,” says Laure Rousseau-Favey, former marketing manager for the Gruyère AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) organization. Not all Gruyères are made on alpage (or over wood-burning fires, for that matter); many are produced year-round in lower-altitude village dairies. These dairies are modernized, but they follow essentially the same recipe and are deeply reliant on the knowledge and experience of cheesemakers. Forty percent of the country’s milk is made into artisanal cheese, and this cheese represents 70 percent of Switzerland’s dairy exports—impacting employment in marginal areas. The dairies also give local farmers a reliable outlet for their milk and, Rousseau adds, “they give people a place to buy local products … they keep communities alive.”
Traditional cheesemakers have been able to stay afloat amid an encroaching transition to industrial dairying, albeit in diminishing numbers. The Swiss have long understood that the survival of small producers depends on teamwork. For the country’s most famous cheeses, cooperatives and AOP groups facilitate supply chain organization and enforce quality standards. Take L’Étivaz, Switzerland’s oldest protected cheese. It may only be produced in summertime on the alp using wood fire-heated copper cauldrons, and all wheels must be aged and sold by the L’Étivaz Cooperative.
Other AOP cheeses like Emmentaler and Gruyère have slightly less centralized systems. Young wheels produced on alpages or in village dairies are typically sold to affineurs, who form long-lasting relationships with cheesemakers and often give them more money for wheels of particularly high quality. Aside from abundant space for cave aging and the capacity to work with retailers, affineurs have invaluable cheese maturation skills. Using ears, noses, and taste buds, they’re able to determine when wheels are prime for sale, and which require further aging.
“It’s a natural, living product,” says Roland Sahli, managing director of Gourmino, an affineur that exports Emmentaler and other Swiss cheeses to the US. “Every day, something can happen new… it’s not like a bakery, where you put bread in the oven and one hour later you know the result.” Sahli and his team closely monitor wheels from the moment they arrive in his cave until they leave, sometimes years later.
Standing in an Emmi-owned cave in Moudon, Switzerland, surrounded by 160,000 wheels of Gruyère, affineur JeanMarc Collomb echoes the sentiment: Each one needs care. “You know what the most difficult part of my job is?” he asks. “Each morning I have to come in here and say ‘bonjour’ to every wheel.”
While cooperation and organization around cheesemaking originally helped mountain peoples adjust to a difficult landscape, today these distinctly Swiss qualities serve another important function. In a small, mountainous country where large-scale agriculture isn’t feasible, gourmet products help Switzerland stay competitive in the global marketplace. Now, to ensure a future for time-honored cheesemaking at home, the country’s producers are targeting consumers abroad.
In the US market, for example, this means reminding Americans about the difference between what they call “Swiss cheese” and real wheels and wedges from Switzerland. Swiss native Caroline Hostettler, owner of Florida-based importer Quality Cheese, remembers first bringing authentic cheeses to the US in the 1990s, to a market flooded with commodity block cheeses people think of as “Swiss.”
“I had to explain to some very well-known chefs why my Gruyère cost three times as much as what they called Gruyère,” she says. “What we brought in was on a whole other level.”
Today, the learning curve isn’t quite so steep, but Hostettler thinks the Swiss still struggle with branding. From 1914 to 1999, the Swiss government strictly controlled its country’s cheese production and distribution through a cartel called the Swiss Cheese Union. Under that system only Emmentaler, Gruyère, and Sbrinz could be produced, so cheesemakers had little need for marketing. When the Union dissolved due to corruption charges, makers of those cheeses had to compete for the first time in an open marketplace, find niches, and rebuild their reputations.
So far, the strategy of Swiss producers in the international market has been honesty: emphasizing the unique mountain pasture, expertise of producers, stringent environmental regulations, and GMO-free feed. But as competition grows, so does the need for innovative marketing. The Swiss seem to understand the value of their products, but they don’t like to talk about it. “I think we are too humble, almost,” says Hostettler says.
So, in the country’s folklore, cheese is the ultimate metaphor: abundant yet precious and as valuable as gold but meant to be shared; a symbol of wealth and bounty but also a
reminder of the importance of modesty. Is it the job of the humble producer to brag about his finely calibrated skills and senses, about his small dairy perched in a dreamlike mountain landscape? Or can the cheeses—massive in size and boasting rich, lingering flavors, punctuated by wild flowers, herbs, and smoky fires— speak for themselves?
It’s often compared to Gruyère, but limiting the production of this cheese to the wood fires and copper cauldrons of the summer alpage guarantees that the milk’s fruity, grassy aromas reflect the specific pasture where cows grazed.
Parmigiano-Reggiano gets all the hype, but this extra-aged hard cheese earns top marks with connoisseurs. Unlike the Italian variety, Swiss Sbrinz is full-fat. By the time it reaches peak maturity at
24 months it boasts layers of crystalline crunch dispersed in a paste that crumbles and grates while retaining a surprising amount of fudgy creaminess.
A rich, complex classic dotted with small holes and famous for robust flowery aromas. Lacking an AOP, producers keep the recipe secret; it’s said that only two people know what’s in the herbal brine rubbed on the outside of wheels during aging.
Imitated endlessly but never quite replicated, these massive 200-pound wheels have many factors to thank for their perfect holes. Namely: artisan producers, affineurs who move wheels strategically between humid and dry caves, and hard-working Propionibacterium. A lack of saltiness or sharpness means that hazelnutty, sweet flavors—which deepen with age and linger on the palate—shine through.
Raclette du Valais /
Walliser Raclette AOP
When fresh, this washed-rind cheese has a buttery taste and mild acidic tang. Melting it fireside releases the cheese’s intense fruity aromas, with notes of bouillon and raspberries—it’s best enjoyed atop boiled potatoes and cornichons.
Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP
Perhaps the creamiest of all classic Swiss Alpine cheeses, its fondant-like texture makes it essential for fondue. The flavor is rounded and nutty, and grows earthier with age.
Tête de Moine AOP
To savor this cheese—thought to look like the head of a Bellelay Abbey monk—shave off ribbons using a special cutter known as a girolle. Not only does this expose the monk’s bald spot, it releases the spicy and fruity flavors within.
Vacherin Mont d’Or AOP
Conventionally produced in the winter when cow’s milk has a high fat content, this beauty is encircled in spruce bark and aged until custard-like with earthy, mushroomy aromas that mingle with hints of meat and smoke. Serve at room temperature or gently baked to slather on bread or potatoes.
Dense and creamy, these sweet and salty wheels grow more robust with age—nutty flavors deepen as crystalline granules form. Wheels develop distinct personalities and aromas that range from chocolate to
mushrooms to caramel to buttered toast.