☰ menu   

Pasture Perfect: Traditional Swiss Cheeses

When you see the violet, narcissus, and thyme flowers swaying gently in the wind on golden-hued Swiss mountain pastures, it’s tempting to get down on all fours and start munching. Little wonder that the native Eringer cows butt heads every spring to be “queen,” as the winner secures a spot at the top of the herd hierarchy and on the best patches of grazing land. Indeed, the flora is linked with the social structure—not only for bovines, but for humans, too. For centuries, Swiss life has revolved around it.


Looking Up: Alpage and Preservation

It’s not easy to grow crops in the mountains, and before scaling rocky summits was considered recreation, there was little reason to meddle in the steep peaks. From about 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, there was a prolonged period of temperate climate; forests grew on Alpine slopes and communities settled in the valleys. But then, the climate cooled again. Tree lines descended and high-altitude forests became summertime grasslands suitable for large animal grazing. People found a way to adapt: Families, each with a few cows, continued to call the valleys home but herded animals collectively at high altitudes in warm weather. Here, on the alpage, were huge quantities of milk to process. The best way to preserve milk for the winter? Make cheese, of course.

And so it continues. On an alp near the village of Gruyères in the Fribourg region, Beat Piller and his parents awaken at dawn to transform milk into Gruyère d’Alpage and Vacherin Fribourgeoise. 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 machinelike precision.

Life on the alp is difficult and labor-intensive. And with the ability to produce only two 80-pound wheels of Gruyère per day, the family cannot benefit from an economy of scale—but that’s not the goal. “This isn’t something that we do to earn tons of money,” Piller says as he packs curd-filled cheesecloth into wooden molds. “It’s a passion, and we just want to be able to make a living.”

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, marketing manager for Le Gruyère AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). Not all Gruyères are made on the 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.”

Tête de Moine

Looking Down: Caves and Collectives

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’Etivaz, 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 Etivaz cooperative.

On the one hand, cooperation means compromise for producers. They must accept strict production
and sales rules (they aren’t allowed to sell cheeses directly), sustain meticulous quality control, and face fines for substandard wheels or production above quota. On the other hand, producers are relieved of the burdens of maturation and marketing. And because the cooperative is a single enterprise, it establishes price. In the end, an Etivaz producer earns two times more for his milk than if he sold it conventionally (to a collection facility).

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 a cave in Moudon, Switzerland, surrounded by 160,000 wheels of Gruyère, affineur Jean-Marc 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.”

Clockwise from bottom left: Appenzeller, Vacherin Fribourgeois, Gruyère, Sbrinz, Emmentaler

Looking Outside: Forging a Future

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 thought 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.”

Left to right: Gruyère, Gruyère d’Alpage, Gruyère Reserve
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 pastures, cheesemaking expertise, 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,” Hostettler says.

In one Swiss legend, an insolent sweetheart of a herdsman whines, “How can I walk up those rough stony tracks to your alp in my beautiful shoes?” The herdsman, also quite spoiled (as a child, he bathed in whey and double cream), builds her a giant cheese stairway. Gaps between the wheels are sealed with butter, and each morning workers sweep them with fresh milk. On the alp, the pair feeds fires with butter and breaks the divine law that all should live simply. Upset by their excessive lifestyle, God finally punishes them by breaking off a piece of the mountain, burying them on the alp forever.

So, then, in the country’s folklore, cheese is the ultimate metaphor: precious and valuable as gold, yet abundant and 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?

Vacherin Fribourgeois

Tasting Notes

Gruyère AOP: 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 mushroom to caramel to buttered toast.

L’Etivaz AOP: 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.

Sbrinz AOP: 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.

Appenzeller: 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.

Emmentaler AOP: 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: This is perhaps the creamiest of all classic Swiss Alpine cheeses, its fondantlike texture making 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 cheese curler. 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 it is 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.

Photographed by Molly McDonough and Frances Bruchez

Molly McDonough

Former Senior Editor Molly McDonough worked for cheesemakers in Switzerland and the US before earning a Master's degree in Agriculture and Food Science at the Ecole Supérieure d'Agriculture in Angers, France. After spending a year in Romania working on rural development projects with Heifer International, she returned home to Boston and joined the culture team in 2015.

Support Local Cheese Makers and Mongers!