Switzerland: Journey to the source

Swiss cheese: Gruyÿres

What did the Romans ever do for us? For the inhabitants of Gruyères in the canton of Fribourg, the refrain might just be "taught us how to make cheese". Then again, it could have been the other way around. The Romans, apparently famous for their cheese-making, once roamed the region, and legend has it that one of their emperors, Antonin the Pious, died of indigestion here in AD161 after eating too much of the local hard stuff.

What did the Romans ever do for us? For the inhabitants of Gruyères in the canton of Fribourg, the refrain might just be "taught us how to make cheese". Then again, it could have been the other way around. The Romans, apparently famous for their cheese-making, once roamed the region, and legend has it that one of their emperors, Antonin the Pious, died of indigestion here in AD161 after eating too much of the local hard stuff.

Gruyères, the cheese in question, is named after the district and medieval town. Gruyères, the area, is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, a mountainous region, with deep, narrow valleys dotted with traditional wooden hamlets, lush green pastures, burbling streams and thick forest.

Gruyères, the ancient walled town, was the capital of the area from 923 and the place from which a succession of counts ruled the land. The castle now houses a museum containing exhibits such as three mourning robes belonging to the knights of the Golden Fleece dating back to the Burgundian wars.

Gruyères, the cheese, first crops up in documents around the Middle Ages. A charter set up in 1115 gave the nearby Cluniac Priory in Rougemont the right to be supplied with cheese from the nearby Gruyères Alps. Local farmers were allowed to let their cows graze the pastures in return for the cheese. The Abbey was supposed to provide the cheese-makers with vats, sieves and cheese wheels. Cheese was also made in the alpine villages every summer for personal consumption of course, but it wasn't until 1249 that something resembling a cheese trade in Fribourg came into existence.

The sons of Rodolphe de Gruyères freed their subjects from Gessenay from the charter of 1115 and granted permission for the export of fatty cheese. Gruyères was first exported to the nearby markets of Vevey and Geneva and later, as roads improved, as far afield as France and Italy.

The famous wheels of Gruyères are still produced in the village dairies using traditional recipes. Gruyères is a smooth-hard cheese with (apparently optional) holes. The long maturing process gives Gruyères its distinctive flavour as does the milk, fresh from the cows grazing Alpine meadows during the summer and hay in winter.

The maturing process takes several months during which time the cheese is turned over and washed with salted water. A young cheese, matured for around five months, is mild; a cheese matured for 10 or more months is sharper and stronger.

Lucy Gillmore

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