Have you ever heard about the Swiss cheese called “Le Gruyère AOP“? In fact, the first time that I saw and tasted it was when I was flying from Shanghai to Zurich by Swiss International Air Lines. As you probably know already, for us Chinese people, cheese are not really that popular. However, as one of the symbols or signatures of Switzerland, I’m always open to try them. To be honest, cheese such as Limburger or Gorgonzola are really too much for me, but as for Le Gruyère AOP, it actually tastes like some kind of milk snack in China, just less sweet and a bit more salty. After visiting the factory I learnt that on the market they sell Gruyère AOP cheese at different maturity stages, for example, the ones between 6-9 months, the ones more than 10 months and the ones matured up to 18 or even 24 months! I personally prefer the mild, classic ones, that is to say the ones at their early maturity stage (around 6 months). They taste much softer, a bit sweeter and less salty than the ones called Gruyère AOP Réserve (starting from 10 months). Now I even buy them in the supermarkets and eat them at home as snacks.
First of all, do you know why this cheese is called “Le Gruyère AOP”? The origin of its name comes from the region of Gruyère, in the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. As for why adding AOP by the end, it is related to the protection of the denominations of goods and their origin and I’ll explain it to you in detail in Chapter 1. Do you know what’s the essential ingredient for making cheese? Yes, of course it’s milk. The quality of milk influences directly the quality of the cheese and that’s why this factory is located near the mountain pastures at the foot of Gruyères Castle. Twice a days, the farmers come to deliver their fresh and top quality milk and as the visitors watch, the master cheese-makers produce each day up to 48 wheels of Le Gruyère AOP. After my visit to the factory, I went for a walk in this region. I could smell the fresh grass all the way and I saw many cows living such a peaceful and relaxing life. Sometimes they turned around and looked at me, probably thinking “Are you jealous of my carefree life?” Admittedly, I am a little bit…
In this post, I’m gonna first of all introduce to you briefly the history, tradition and characteristics of Le Gruyère AOP. In the second chapter, I will provide you with some practical information concerning the preparation of your visit to La Maison du Gruyère. In the third chapter, I will give you a virtual tour of this maison with emphasis on the live demonstration of cheese-making in the factory. Now, let’s see what story Le Gruyère AOP wants to tell us.
1. Brief introduction of Le Gruyère AOP
Le Gruyère AOP has had a really long history and its making has been handed down over many generations of cheese makers in the alpine cheese dairies. It is said that cheese-making in this region can be traced back to 1115 and for the centuries, the procedures as well as the well-tried recipe have remained the same. There is evidence showing that as early as in the 12th century, residents here already knew how to turn milk into full fat cheese and this product was even sold in France and Italy. In the 17th century, the first measures for the protection of its origin through marking came into play and the word specifying its origin entered the dictionary of the Académie Française (1762). It was also in this period of time that the export business of this cheese flourished. In the 19th century, the geographic production zone of Gruyère cheese extended to the cantons of Vaud, Neuchâtel, Jura, and even to France. However, due to the lack of trade protection, Gruyère cheese was often imitated and in the mid-19th century, a fight for its recognized designation of origin began. This fight lasted for a rather long time and fortunately, after a series of discussions, Gruyère cheese was granted Controlled Designation of Origin (AOC) at national level in 2001 and in 2011, it received the Protected Designation of Origin (AOP) for all of Europe. If you wanna know more about the history of Le Gruyère AOP, please click here.
The characteristic taste of Gruyère AOP is attributed to high-quality raw milk, which comes from cows fed on grass in summer and hay in winter, and to the expertise of milk producers, master cheese-makers and affineurs (maturers). For centuries, the recipe has remained the same and it ensures the distinctive flavor of Le Gruyère AOP cheese. Marking on each wheel, made with casein, the main protein in cheese, indicates the manufacturing date of it and the Gruyère AOP label as well as the number of the production site appears on the heel of each wheel. All the markings are to prevent fraudulent production and to guarantee the authenticity of each piece.
Now let’s come back to the question that I raised at the very beginning of this post. Why adding AOP to the end of the name of this cheese? In French AOP is short for Appellation d’Origine Protégée and in English it means Protected Designation of Origin. As I have already mentioned in the previous paragraph, after a long “war” among regions or even countries fighting for the origin of this specific kind of cheese, Gruyère cheese was granted Controlled Designation of Origin (AOC) at national level in 2001 and received the Protected Designation of Origin (AOP) for all of Europe in 2011. AOP belongs to one of the three European Union schemes of geographical indications and traditional specialties, known as protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional specialities guaranteed (TSG), which promote and protect names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs. Products registered under one of the three schemes may be marked with the logo for that scheme to help identify those products. In order to be registered under this scheme (AOP), you have to have 1) a tradition; 2) a limited production zone; 3) a name; 4) a savoir-faire and a history and 5) a product. To conclude, the AOP label guarantees the authenticity of products made according to the traditional know-how. Now I guess you understand why the three letters are so important that they are even added to the official name of Gruyère cheese. If you want know more about AOP please click here to read about it on Wikipedia and if you are interested in the production zone of Gruyère AOP cheese please click here to find all the dairies. Please note that Le Gruyère AOP owes its name to the region of Gruyère and nowadays it is produced in the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura, and in a few municipalities of the canton of Bern.
Having talked about the history and the recognition of its origin all around Europe, let’s take a look at the typical characteristics of Le Gruyère AOP.
- Thickness: 9.5 to 12 cm
- Diameter: 55 to 65 cm
- Weight of a wheel: between 25 and 40 kg
- Water: 34.5 % to 36.9 %
- Smell: strong smell of ammonia
- Texture: the cheese feels smooth and slightly damp. It is soft, moderately firm and not very crumbly.
- Appearance: a wheel of Gruyère AOP is round with a smeared, grainy, uniformly brownish and healthy rind. Its solid ivory color varies depending on the season. The outer edge, which is called the “heel”, is slightly convex.
For more information such as the affinage (maturation), average nutritional value for 100 grams, casein marking, heel marking, raw material and composition, salt bath and so on of Le Gruyère AOP, please click here.
Now let’s get prepared to witness how Le Gruyère AOP is actually made in the factory.
2. Practical information for visiting la Maison du Gruyère
Many thanks to the opening of this demonstration dairy, which lets us visitors discover “all the secrets” of “Le Gruyère AOP” cheese-making. This dairy is equipped with four 4800-litre vats and a cellar where 7000 wheels can ripen. Twice a day, the farmers come to deliver milk and the cheese is made, depending on the season, 2-4 times a day. It is right in this dairy that each day the master cheese-makers can produce up to 48 wheels of Gruyère AOP.
2.1 Opening hours:
- Daily from June to September: 9:00 – 18:30
- Daily from October to May: 9:00 – 18:00
Cheese-making: from 9:00 – 11:00 and from 12:30 to 14:30
Please note that according to my personal experience, I would suggest you plan an hour for visiting the exhibition and the last entrance is 30 mins before the closing time of it.
Of course, the highlight of visiting this demonstration cheese dairy is to watch live how Gruyère AOP is made in the factory from the heating of milk to removing the cheese and filling it into the moulds. Below is a picture that I took in the factory, which shows the cheese-making timetable for Gruyère AOP. I hope that you can take a look at it and plan your trip accordingly so that you don’t miss the highlight. Personally I think removing the cheese and filling it into the moulds is the most interesting part.
As I mentioned above, the cheese is made here 2-4 times a day and as indicated on the timetable, the first cheese-making in the morning could be cancelled. The tourism office also warned me that it’s safer to visit la Maison du Gruyère in the morning so that I would be guaranteed the opportunity to watch the cheese-making live. In conclusion, the best time to arrive at the exhibition is at around 10:30 or 11:00. To be honest, I would be rather upset if I came here but somehow missed the live Gruyère AOP making demonstration.
2.2 Ticket prices
- Adults: CHF 7.-
- Students/Seniors: CHF 6.-
- Families: CHF 12.- (2 adults + children up to 12 years old)
- Groups (of 10 or more people, on reservation): CHF 6.- per adult and CHF 5.- per student or senior citizen
- Children’s groups (of 10 or more people who are up to 12 years old, on reservation): CHF 3.- per child
2.3 How to get there
La Maison du Gruyère (The House of Gruyère) is located in the village of the same name Gruyères, near the mountain pastures at the foot of Gruyères Castle. It is only 1 min away by foot from Gruyères train station and once you leave the platform you will notice the entrance instantly.
Having learnt about all the essential information for a smooth and successful trip, let’s start exploring and discovering the secrets of making Le Gruyère AOP, a type of cheese that has been made in Switzerland for more than 900 years.
3. A journey to the heart of the senses
A visit to La Maison du Gruyère is also called a journey to the heart of the senses. Why? Because during your visit to the exhibition and to the factory, you can hear the bells and the bellowing of the cows, smell the flora of the high pastures in the Alps, touch the tools traditionally used for making cheese, see the pictures, videos and even live demonstration of the production of Le Gruyère AOP and taste cheese samples at three different stages of maturity. At the entrance, an audio guide will be given to you and the information is available in 13 languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese and Russian). What’s more, there are also written translations available in Albanian, Korean, Dutch, Finnish, Hebrew and Romanian. Now let’s follow our guide “Cherry”, a cow from a local farm in Gruyères and learn about Le Gruyère AOP cheese.
3.1 On the pasture
Once you step on the staircase leading to the exhibition, you will hear the bells, the bellowing of the cows and the streams that rush down the mountain. In this part of the exhibition, Cherry will introduce to you her living environment and the breeds of her and her friends. What I liked most is that here you can smell the flora of the high pastures such as sage, vanilla, rosemary and many more and the hay that the cows are fed on in winter. As shown in the fourth picture above in this section, just lift the cover of the tubes and you will smell what the cows eat for their meals everyday. It is said that experts can tell what kinds of grass the cows are fed on based on the smell and taste of their milk. Can you distinguish them?
3.2 A wink of the farms
If you keep walking after smelling the flora and hey, Cheery will tell you the daily life of the farmers. Do you know that cows eat more than 8 times more food and drink 28 times more water than us human beings? Do you know how the farmers lived their life, got milk and made cheese in the 18th and 19th century? Do you know what the situation is like nowadays? Just follow the audio guide and you will be amazed at how technology has made both the cows’ and our lives so much easier and more convenient.
Keep following the audio guide and the signs. Once you turn around to enter the main exhibition hall, in the middle of which the demonstration factory is located, you will see a display checkerboard. Feel free to touch all the items here which are related to cheese-making and if you don’t know what some of the items are used for, check the information paper on your right hand side. For example, the cowbell is used not only for helping locate the animal but also as a decoration for the animal. The cheese sampler is used to removed a sample of cheese to assess its degree of maturity. The salt stick is a block of salt and is used for giving the cows additional minerals. Besides theses, you can also touch the Chaule, a one-legged milking tool specific to this region, the Loyi, a bag carried by the man who milks the cows which contains two jars that hold salt and moisturizing cream, the cheese brush and so on. For me, who is from Asian and hasn’t lived in the Swiss villages, some of the items are indeed interesting and curious. Sometimes it was even impossible to guess the actual function of certain tools.
3.3 What do you know about Le Gruyère AOP?
After touching, experimenting and learning about the items connected to cheese-making, let’s keep walking and learn about Le Gruyère AOP. Do you know that a cow eats 100 kg of grass, drinks 85 litres of water and produces on average 25 litres of milk everyday? Nevertheless, it takes 400 litres of milk to make one wheel of Gruyère AOP, which weighs around 35 kg. In this specific dairy, there are 30 milk producers that deliver more than 6 million litres of milk every year and the four 4800-litre vats enable up to 48 wheels of Gruyère AOP to be produced daily, which leads to an annual production of more than 500 tons of it.
I think I’ve mentioned Gruyère AOP Classic and Gruyère AOP Réserve before. Do you know that there are also Gruyère AOP Bio and Gruyère d’Alpage AOP? Do you know the differences between them? Below is what I learnt from the exhibition and from the official website.
- Gruyère AOP “Classic”: It is rather young cheese (6 to 9 months of maturity)
- Gruyère AOP Réserve: Having matured for at least 10 months and it has a more assertive and intensely aromatic character
- Gruyère AOP Bio: Produced exactly the same way as any Gruyère AOP, it is made from organic milk produced according to the standards set by BIO-SUISSE
- Gruyère d’Alpage AOP: It is only made in the summer, from mid-May to around mid-October when the cows go up to mountain pasture and graze on lush and varied grass. The milk they produce is rich in flavor, which is then passed on to the cheese.
For a more detailed explanation of the differences between these variations of Gruyère AOP, you can either read about it in the factory or click here to read about it online.
3.4 Live demonstration of Gruyère AOP cheese-making
This part is absolutely the highlight of the entire tour and I hope that you arrive here right on time when the demonstration starts. Basically the demonstration factory is the core of the whole exhibition, which you can notice easily by the location of and the area covered by it. The main part of the factory, where the four 4800-litre vats and the 48 moulds which are used to press the wheels are located, is surrounded by glass-windows on three sides. These huge transparent windows let visitors have a 270° view of what’s happening in the factory. If you are early, don’t worry, you can either play the interactive game to challenge your knowledge about Le Gruyère AOP or watch the video being played on the screens hanging in the factory, which explains to you the whole procedures of producing Le Gruyère AOP from the delivery of milk to its maturation in the cellar. As indicated in the cheese-making schedule, what we visitors can observe are the procedures from “heating the milk” to “removing the cheese and filling it into the moulds”. During this period of time, the vital steps are adding the rennet, a natural ingredient extracted from calf stomach to curdle the milk; cutting the curd; checking the consistency; transferring to the moulds; pressing the cheese into the moulds and putting the casein marks. However, these procedures last for more than two hours and I don’t think you want to stare at the curdling, setting or stirring of the milk for almost two hour. Therefore I recommend you observing how the cheese is removed from the vats, how it is filled into the moulds and how the casein marks are added. For me, these are the most interesting steps.
I believe you have already known that a wheel of Le Gruyère AOP is not made in a day, let alone in several hours. If you keep walking along the glass windows, you will soon see another room with the salt bath. On the windows of this room you will see an explanation of the complete procedures of making Gruyère AOP. For example, from the delivery of milk to vat curdling, from curd cutting and mixing to placing the cheese in the mold and marking, from salt bathing in the salt bath room to affinage (maturation) in the cellar and so on. We have seen the main factory, the salt bath room, but where is the cellar? The moment you exit the exhibition you can turn left and after you pass the ticket office (reception) you will see the cellar where up to 7000 wheels of Gruyère AOP can be stored for maturation. We will talk more about it when we are there. In this sense, it seems we have really seen the complete “life circle” of Le Gruyère AOP. If you want to know about all the 8 steps of making Le Gruyère AOP, please click here to read more into the detailed explanations.
3.5 A fabulous historical reconstitution
In order to pay tribute to the traditional recipe and expertise for making Le Gruyère AOP, in 2011 Gruyère celebrated its 10-year anniversary of obtaining its AOC certification by organizing a fabulous historical reconstitution. From the 12th to the 22nd of May, a convoy transported wheels of Gruyère AOP cheese from Gruyères to Lyon by foot, horse and boat, taking the same route and using the same means of transport as the merchants did decades ago. What a wonderful journey to remind us of the history, culture and tradition of Gruyère AOP!
3.6 The current situation of Le Gruyère AOP
In this section you will learn about the definition of Appellation d’Origine Protégée (Protected Designation of Origin) and its guidelines, the production region of Gruyère AOP as well as the main countries where it is consumed. In the first chapter, I’ve already explained to you what AOP is and why it is important to obtain this designation. If you wanna know more about it please scroll up or click here.
Nowadays, Gruyère AOP is produced in the cantons of Fribourg (52%), Vaud (28%), Neuchâtel and Jura (15%), and in a few municipalities of the canton of Bern (5%) and it is mainly consumed in Switzerland (59%) of course, the USA (10%), Germany (9%), France (7%), the UK (2.3%), Belgium (3%), Italy (1%), Spain and Portugal (0.7%) and some other countries.
Following the projection of Le Gruyère AOP cheese in different maturity stages, we will exit the main exhibition hall and come to the photo point.
3.7 Take your picture with Le Gruyère AOP wheels and check out the recipes
Here at audio guide point No. 15 you will hear about the nutrition facts of Le Gruyère AOP. For example, each 100 grams of it contain 1645 kj energy, 5 g minerals, 36 g water, 32 g fat content and 27 g protein. Please note that Le Gruyère AOP is also 100% preservative free, lactose free and gluten free.
It is also here that you can not only have your souvenir photos taken with models of big wheels of Gruyère AOP but also check out the delicious recipes involving this specific type of cheese. For example some of the recipes are Bacon and Gruyère AOP crisps; Millefeuille gratin with endive, ham and Gruyère AOP; Prawn, pepper, red onion and Gruyère AOP skewers; Teriyaki beef skewers with Gruyère AOP; Gruyère AOP encrusted shoulder of lamb and many more. If you are interested please click here to check out more recipes and read about the detailed ingredients, preparations, step by step cooking procedures and tips.
What I forgot to mention is that when you buy your ticket at the reception, the staff with give you three pieces of Gruyère AOP at the maturity stages of 6, 8 and 10 months. I recommend you tasting them after your visit because in this case you have already learnt something about them and you will know how to appreciate them. For me personally, I prefer the 6-month one because it’s much softer and less salty than the other two. I prefer cheese with mild flavor and refined texture. Nevertheless, if you prefer strong flavors, I believe you will like the ones with longer maturation time. Anyway, tastes differ. “One man’s meat might be another man’s poison.”
Now let’s go downstairs accompanied by the sound from the mountain pastures and exit the exhibition hall. However, don’t exit the maison yet. Please turn left and let’s take a look at the cellar where up to 7000 wheels of Gruyère AOP can ripen.
3.8 The cellar
Depending on the season, 4000-7000 wheels of Gruyère AOP mature in this cellar with the humidity of 92% and at the temperature of between 12-18 degrees. For the first 10 days when the wheels are here, they need to be brushed with the mixture of water and salt every day. After the first 10 days, this procedure will be carried out 3 times a week for two weeks and then twice a week for 3 months and then only once a week before they are ready for sale. The appearance, texture and flavor change depending on how mature the wheels of Gruyère AOP are and you can learn more about the changes from the info board on the wall.
Feeling tired or hungry after your visit to the exhibition? Three pieces of Gruyère AOP are far from enough? It’s probably time to visit the restaurant and the market.
4. The restaurant and the market
Located right next to the exhibition hall are the restaurant and the Gruyère market. In the restaurant, you can choose either to sit inside or on the terrace with views of the beautiful alpine pastures and mountains. Regional dishes such as Gruyère AOP cheese fondue, chalet soup, high pasture macaroni and so on are offered daily. If you want you can also buy Gruyère AOP cheese, fondue cheese, Gruyère cream as well other Gruyère AOP-themed souvenirs such as bracelets, mugs and sweets etc. in the Gruyère market. It provides a wide range of gifts for you to choose for either your family and friends or yourself.
If you are interested in Switzerland, then a visit to La Maison du Gruyère (the demonstration cheese dairy of Le Gruyère AOP) is a must because how can you miss such a great opportunity to observe live how this traditional famous Swiss cheese is actually made in the factory? The tour will give you a complete picture of the making of Le Gruyère AOP from the producers of its main ingredient, the cows to its maturation in the cellar. Indeed, a visit to La Maison du Gruyère is a journey to the heart of the senses, where you will discover all “the secrets” of Gruyère AOP cheese-making.