When flying to Europe from the USA, staying up as late as you can on the first night is crucial to negating jet lag. After making it to 11.30 pm on the first evening in the Alps, the sound sleep and the morning Alpine air meant a refreshed start to the day.
The night was spent in a hotel in the town of Gruyères — yes, the town from where the cheese gets its name. At breakfast however, slices of Gruyère were not the only AOP (protected) food item on display. I came across for the first time the bread Cuchaule: a protected AOP bread, made only in the Fribourg region. It's a bit like a brioche, coloured with saffron, and with a dash of sugar for sweetness.
What a perfect way to start the morning.
The first stop for the day was down the hill from the town of Gruyères, to the Maison du Gruyères, where the Gruyère organisation has a cheesemaking facility, a restaurant, a audio-guided tour, and a gift shop. It is really here where, if it hadn't already sunk in, Gruyère cheese is a big business. A very big business.
It is clear from the start at the cheesemaking facility that it was built to impress and awe visitors with its efficiency, and yet its adherence to the traditional AOP rules. Stainless steel and ceramic rules. Bright white aprons and wellington boots abound. And from the viewing windows above, the facility looks like a surgeon's operating theatre.
Four huge copper/steel vats sit, full of milk, ready to be turned into curd, at particular times throughout the morning, so that the steady flow of visitors could each see a different stage: fresh milk, setting the curd, cutting the curd, cooking the curd, and ultimately the curd moulding and pressing.
Mechanised and efficient (even with a robot cheese turner, see above). The two cheesemakers operating the machinery, were minders, who started the processes, recorded the times, and cleaned the instrumentation. Swiss precision and efficiency at its best. Yet despite this, the facility felt a counterpoint to the tradition, from which they so firmly flew their banner. Yes, the pots were copper, but copper-lined steel jacketed vats. The curds and whey were pumped into moulds on automated scales, but we know that gentle curd handling can make a huge difference in cheese texture.
The facility definitely impressed, but still only tangentially managed to connect the cheese to the people, the cows and the land — despite a section of the audio tour being dedicated to these things, they always felt secondary. But knowing the size and the power of the Gruyère organisation and brand, perhaps that was the point? On Day Three, we are travelling to see a Gruyère made by hand, and I think that is where the real Gruyère, the Alpage will show its superiority.
After a brief visit to the Castle of Gruyères at the top of the town (quite small but charming), we hopped back in the van to drive southeast to Adelboden in the Bern Canton. But, on the way we stopped off at the Jaun Pass.
As you will have read in yesterday's blog post, our Alp Steiners Hohberg has got new cheesemakers (Ruoti and Fabian). The previous cheesemaker, Kari, 'retired' by buying a smaller facility at the top of the Jaun Pass, between the Fribourg and Bern cantons.
We caught him as he had cheerfully finished his make of the day - only in Day 6 of cheesemaking of the summer so far. A much smaller operation, he will only make 15 wheels of so of Alpkäse from the local cow's milk, with a few fresh goat cheeses each day. And in winter, he will see...
The pass is popular for cyclists and motorcyclists, so his little cheese shop will act as a perfect reward and break for those riding the sweeping curves of the roads on either side.
Heading down the southern side of the pass towards Adelboden where we were aiming to investigate two places: an Alpengarten and the Käsespezialitäten Schmid Adelboden (the local cheese shop).
The Alpengarten is a fenced area, in which there are over 400 types of wild flowers, trees and shrubs. All labelled in German, French and Latin. It was a place of tranquility, especially with the views of the valley, and being at an altitude of 1400 m (4200'). Clouds were lingering around the top of the Alps across the valley, which were to make themselves known later in the evening, as they brought rain and hail.
After the Alpengarten and the easier stroll down the hill to the town, we visited the local cheese shop, which has been run by Manfred for over 20 years. Manfred had prepared a beautiful cheeseboard with some local samples. They were all good but the local Alpkäse which was "made over there by the waterfall" and the Bernese Hobelkäse were exceptional.
They were bursting with such a multitude of floral flavours and spices, that they reminded me of the Alpengarten.
Mulling on this makes me feel that, the streams of tourists at the Maison du Gruyère in the morning would have appreciated cheese a lot more, with a visit up the winding path to the Alpengarten, rather than the organised and sterilised demonstration in town.
But then, that is what we as cheesemongers and cheese shops, and this blog is for: to bring the Alpengarten back to our own places in the world?