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In an age of increasing homogenisation, it’s reassuring to know that there’s at least one international product which is still made by the same artisanal and very human methods which have been used in its production for hundreds of years. Despite its worldwide recognition, Le Gruyère AOP is no factory-made product, but a traditional cheese which is created daily in the 170 small dairies which shelter under the Le Gruyère AOP umbrella.
These producers really are small, too. Drive through the rolling foothills of Western Switzerland and you may blink and miss them. A medium-sized dairy often employs only two or three people and may produce 14 wheels of Gruyère AOP a day.
But this is a cheese made in a way that is quite unique, and its story begins in the lush grasslands of the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel, Jura and the Bern area, where alpine cows produce the high quality milk which is essential for the making of Gruyère AOP. The cheese is an entirely natural product: the milk comes from small herds of animals which have been fed on grass in the summer and hay in the winter. No silage is used and nor are any preservatives or additives. The unpasteurised milk is delivered to the cheesemaker twice per day, every day, and although it must be poured into the vat no more than 18 hours after milking, early consignments will be ready to begin the cheesemaking process a very short time after milking.
In order to ensure complete freshness, the small herds must be located no further than 12.4 miles from the dairy. If you have noticed one or two rules being laid down here, then this is what Le Gruyère AOP is all about. To ensure the balance of flavour and quality of a cheese which is sold at different ages, and is made by so many little dairies, strict rules ensure conformity of both character and quality right across the board.
This does not, however, mean that there are not the same little differences consistent with being a live product. While you will find small seasonal and regional variations, and larger ones in cheeses of different ages, both Gruyère AOP Classic (matured for between five and nine months) and AOP Reserve (matured for a minimum of 10 months) differ widely when it comes to flavour notes, many consumers detecting a creamy, floral character in the younger cheeses and a dryer, sometimes crystalline texture and deeper flavour in the longer-matured ones.
To achieve this level of consistency, Le Gruyère AOP closely monitors the product of each cheesemaker, checking paste quality, texture, aroma and appearance. All must conform perfectly to Le Gruyère AOP standards before the cheese can be sold under that name. Each part of the process is entirely separate from the next: milk producers do not produce any cheese and cheese makers may not produce any milk.
Cheeses are judged using a points system, and cheese makers are paid more for higher-scoring cheeses, making it in their interest to ensure very high standards. Sub-standard cheeses are identified by Le Gruyère AOP cheese-masters and are either used to make grated cheese or are destroyed.
Retailers will appreciate the fact that Gruyère AOP cheese is an entirely traceable product, thanks to records and checks at every stage of its production. When the milk arrives at the dairy, a sample is taken and held for six months, so that in the event of an imperfection, the milk can be traced back to its supplier. Produced with animal rennet, Le Gruyère AOP is a very traditional cheese which, allowing for a few modern innovations such as heated copper vats, has been made in much the same way for 900 years and is naturally gluten and lactose-free.
The integrity of Le Gruyère AOP is protected by the casein mark and date of production which can be found on the top of the wheel, and the words Le Gruyère AOP along with the number of the dairy, which is imprinted on the rind.
Find out more at gruyere.com
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