It may be the size of Europe that makes official designations so prevalent – countries with long histories and frequently shifting borders seem to share cultural influences more easily while still remaining jealous and proud of their own cultural contributions. It could be an identity issue, having so many languages and cultures in such close proximity, or it could just be about the money. After all, there’s plenty of it to be made by slapping ‘Champagne’ on a bottle of sparkling wine, just as there is value to be added to any blue cheese by calling it Gorgonzola.
Regardless of the reason, though, in the 20th century the official designations arose, and grew fast. Just as the French began to use their Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) to certify the geographical origin of their goods, the Italians use their DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) to protect the names of their cheeses and wines. The Spanish actually started the trend in 1933 with their Denominación de Origen.
So it’s no surprise the Swiss are proud enough of their Gruyère to do the exact same thing.
Often imitated not only throughout Europe but the rest of the world as well, Gruyère has been made for nearly 1,000 years, and is revered as the jewel of their cheeses. Soft and complex, it is renowned as one of the world’s great cooking cheeses. It is protected by Swiss AOC, and just to make sure there’s no mistake, Swiss Gruyère will have ‘Switzerland’ stamped all over the outside of it. They’re clearly proud of it, and with good reason.
“Gruyere’s got this amazing complexity, tons of nuttiness, tons of fruity flavors and – depending on the wheel you’ve got – you might even find some caramel in there,” says Rich Rogers, owner of Scardello Artisan Cheese in Dallas. “It’s a really fantastic cheese.”
First documented in the 12th century A.D.*, Gruyere’s texture and complexity made it famous among European kitchens, where it became the perfect topping for the French onion soup, the ideal filling (along with ham) for the croques madame and monseiur, and even a featured spot as a dipping agent in its role with Fondue. However, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be melted to be enjoyed. Gruyere can be grated over salads, matched with fruits, and it can even stand on its own on a cheese plate.
“There was this time I had some Rolf Beeler Gruyère – and this cheese is like cheese heaven – and it was early on when we first opened, and I had this customer come in who wanted some cheeses to impress some guests. So I pulled out this Gruyère and he kind of scoffed,” recalls Rogers. “So I just asked him to taste some, and when he finally did it blew him away.”
Made with cow’s milk and then pressed, Gruyère is typically formed in 75-90 pound wheels, and according to the Oxford Food Companion, is usually aged for around a year’s time. Like most cheeses, as the aging process is lengthened, Gruyère will develop more complex flavors, and while the aging process dries out cheeses, Gruyère will maintain its creamy texture to a large extent, even with extended aging.
It is without question a unique style of cheese, Gruyère, and though the Swiss maintain tight control on the name, the French aren’t totally convinced that some of the naming rights don’t belong to them, too. While the name of the cheese comes from Swiss town of Gruyères (in the district of Gruyère in the canton of Fribourg), it is right on the border of France. And when Gruyere was being made in the middle ages, the border between Switzerland and France didn’t matter much to the peasants who were making the mountain cheese. Thus Gruyère de Comté, or simply Comté became the French equivalent to Swiss Gruyere. The French also jealously protect their version, though in reality the two have little to worry about in the end.
“Gruyere is a cheese of place. There are plenty of places around the world that try to make a gruyere, but because of the terrior, of what the animals eat and so forth … well, let’s just say if you don’t have a Swiss mountain in your backyard, it’s kind of hard to make a Swiss mountain cheese,” says Rogers with a grin.
A search for Gruyère in Dallas should take you by Scardello (where Rogers again has a supply of Beeler Gruyère in stock) and Central Market and Whole Foods also have a good selection. As Paula Lambert suggests in her book The Cheese Lover’s cookbook and Guide, the finest Gruyère should “have a slight dampness in its pea-sized eyes,” though it’s unlikely you’ll the texture until after you’ve bought it and start eating. Really, the best way to start is to ask those who know, whether at a cheese shop or a cheese counter. And if they can’t help, well, just find the cheese that has the Swiss flags stamped all over it.
They make it hard to miss.
*Julie Harbutt’s World Cheese Book claims the origin of Gruyère can be traced to 1072, though The Oxford Companion to Food and Paula Lambert’s Cheese Lover’s Cookbook both claim its origins to be in the 12th century.