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Gruyère doesn't just come from Gruyères

"A palate of vast complexity, Gruyere enjoys ever evolving nuances. Opening with full-bodied, fruity tones, the flavours slowly journey towards earthy and nutty with a soft finale to finish. Covered by a natural rind, the texture of the body is dense during its youth, becoming flaky and somewhat granular as it ages." Castello

Yes people talk about cheese in the same way they talk about wine - over the top really in a special kind of hushed tone full of cheesey jargon. I'm just going to talk a little bit about this particular cheese, which I first encountered in France - not Switzerland.

When I first went to France at the tender age of 13 or 14, in the early 50s, we still had rationing in England. Food was basic English, however, wonderful a job my mother made of it. And cheese was Cheddar. Was there anything else? Well maybe occasionally a Red Leicester, or a Gloucester. Evern more rarely Caerphilly and Wensleydale. I don't think we ever had blue cheese, though we may occasionally have had cream cheese. I'm not sure about that. Anyway - a limited range. So when I went to France and stayed in a house where there was always a cheese course at dinnertime - after the salad, and before dessert - although dessert, except for the Sunday patisserie, was generally a piece of fruit - I became acquainted with a whole new world of cheese. The cheese that was consumed in that particular house was mostly Camembert which was selected by my exchange friend Simone, by her prodding it with her finger. The softer the better. I did try it. I was brought up to be polite and never refuse stuff, but I was forced to admit that I did not really like it. And so they bought me Gruyère. In a way this is a little bit odd, because Gruyère is a Swiss cheese, although, of course, also manufactured in France. There are absolutely delicious hard cheeses in France - Tomme de Cantal, Comté, Mimolette, the black rinded Pyrenees cheese whose name escapes me now, but none of these were offered to me. Maybe it was because Gruyère was cheap. Well I don't know whether it was, but it is indeed the most popular cheese in Europe - mostly I think because it is an excellent cooking cheese.

I'm writing about it today because one of those old Gourmet Traveller magazines - about to be thrown out - featured Gruyère. So here is what I found out.

Yes it is Swiss, made only in spring and summer when the cows have fresh pastures. Silage cannot be used in the making of Gruyère - anywhere in the world I believe. It got its name in 1655 - from the picturesque town of Gruyères. It is much more ancient than that though:

"Swiss legend has it that in 161 AD the Roman emperor Antonin the Pious died of indigestion after eating too much Gruyère."

Fundamentally the peasant farmers would have made the cheese so that they had something to eat in the winter months, when the cows had no pasture. And their fresh milk is unpasteurised as well. Rennet is added to the milk which separates out. The curds are chopped up even more to release more whey and then put into huge moulds - 30kg and pressed. Then it is rubbed with a bacterial mixture and brined. For weeks it is daily wetted and more bacteria added - I think I have that right. It is then stored - being turned regularly - like Parmesan - and stored for six months - in Switzerland - nine in France - minimum. Some is aged for longer, but I don't think for more than a year.

That pasture the cows graze on is fundamental to its taste according to Will Studd:

"If you ever get the opportunity to see a whole wheel of Gruyère being cut open, don't miss it. As the two halves gently separate you may be lucky enough to smell the million wildflowers that helped make it, then taste the condensed sweet nutty cheese inside it." Will Studd

Many years ago we were on one of those pseudo conferences in Montreux and whilst there we were all bussed out to the Gruyères factory in the town - shown below.

I'm not sure whether Gruyère cheese, in Europe anyway, is ever made on small-scale artisan farms. After all, even though the food critics do indeed wax lyrical about the cheese's taste, it's popularity I suspect is because it is one of the very best cooking cheeses - think fondue, French onion soup and quiche.

These days there are rigid rules about its manufacture because it has AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) status. The French Gruyère does too but with slightly different rules - and I think the name has to specify that it is French. Apparently the French cheese has to have holes - which makes sense, because that Gruyère that I ate way back in the 50s had holes, and so I always thought that Gruyère had holes. Not in Switzerland.

"The rind is a guide to how well the cheese has aged and should not look too thick or dark. Beneath this, a few horizontal fissures in the texture are acceptable and you may find small holes which, although technically regarded as a fault, may contain a glistening drop of sweet moisutre know as angel's tears - when you taste these you'll know why." Will Studd

There is even a Grand cru denomination - like I said - it's all a bit like wine. Bitter wars were fought between the French and the Swiss at one point, because the French wanted AOP status (Appellation d'Origine Protegée) - handed out by the EU as international recognition. I think the Swiss got it though - which might become a problem for the Australian version.

For these days in Australia we have our very own Gruyère - the most famous of which is Heidi Farm Gruyère from northern Tasmania, now made by Lactos under the eye of Darren Pease cheesemaker, who learnt how to make it from the founder of Heidi Farm - Frank Marchand. Well I say Lactos, but actually I think these days Heidi Farm is ultimately owned by Saputo through a very complicated line of acquisitions, mergers and demergers.

Frank Marchand was a Swiss cheesemaker who came to Australia in the 1970s. He began working for Lactos in Tasmania and whilst there developed the Swiss-like cheese St. Claire, with Ueli Berger, another Swiss. I remember St. Claire, but I suspect that it is no longer made - I certainly can't find it online. Whilst still working for Lactos Frank Marchand found his own farm. I think I read somewhere that when he found the spot he was so ecstatic at its beauty and suitability for making Swiss style cheeses, that he yodelled in delight. Which sounds a bit like one of those urban - well country - myths to me. However, he felt, in 1985 the first Heidi Farm Gruyère was made. Obviously there are major differences - no alpine flowers for the cattle - they must be quite different flowers, though the cattle are still purely grass-fed. No silage allowed. The other major thing, is that, of course, the milk has to be pasteurised to meet health regulations, although I think maybe that originally it was unpasteurised.

In 1999 Frank Marchand and Ueli Berger were joined by young cheesemaker Darren Pearce, and over time the three developed multi-award winning Tilsit and Raclette cheeses. I think they may have also made Emmenthal to begin with but that seems to have disappeared from the line. The raclette is Australia's most awarded cheese. (left to right, Gruyère, Tilsit, Raclette.) They have also won awards at the World Cheese Awards in 1992, 2002, 2005 and 2015. Yet another gong for Australian cheesemakers. We should be proud. I'm not sure where you can buy it though - certainly not at your local supermarket. A gourmet food shop obviously. Or online. Or maybe it's one of those things that only restaurants and hotels get to buy. Or the rich, which is in complete contrast to Europe where it is your standard cooking cheese.

In 2002 Frank retired and sold Heidi Farm to Lactos who may or may not still exist. Darren Pease appears to now be working for Red Farm Organics and Ueli Berger after a spell as the head cheesemaker on King Island, which I think now belongs to Bega, is now Technical Director at National Foods - which was part of the Lion empire - so presumably now Bega. The cheesemaking world is very complicated in Australia these days. There were major acquisitions involving Saputo, Mondelez, Lion, Kirin and Bega, and in the process some of the smaller award winning places were snaffled up by the big guns. And today a new generation of individuals rises up. Fascinating stuff really - rather like the tech world. If you have something really, really good, one of the big guys will buy you up one day.


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