Making Gruyere cheese, efficient, but romantic

The town of Gruyere, Switzerland, nestles around its medieval castle; cobblestoned narrow roads wind among the outdoor restaurants, inns, and shops; brilliant flowers cascade in profusion from window boxes and wooden tubs along every building.Ivy geraniums are especially beautiful.

Across the main highway in a green, grassy field is one of the many mobile cheese factories that have brought fame to the area for centuries.

Fifteen hundred rural dairies serve as the source of the raw milk for cheesemaking, and the chief milk-producing cow here in the canton of Fribourg is the Swiss Brown.

Today all milking is done by machine, and often the farmer himself transports it to the local factory.

It is believed that the milk should rest as much as possible so processing plants are located near dairy centers.

Both morning and evening milk is collected, ending up in huge vats where it is heated to 32 degrees C. under the close control of experienced master cheesemakers.

It is the cheesemaker who adds the rennet cultures to the vat where curds form in about 30 minutes, and it is also here that the cheesemaker displays his skill, stirring at 55 degrees C. until grains are exactly the right size.

At this point the work becomes intense; the curds are quickly filtered out, separated from the whey and put into the molds. Whey is saved and fed to pigs.

Once molded, the cheese is covered and pressed then put into brine for two days to trigger formation of the rind.

The fermentation cellars are the next step for at least 10 to 12 months of slow natural fermentation.

Gruyere is the second most commonly produced variety after Emmental. It is prized because it is more highly flavored and in fact is said to be three times more popular in Switzerland than ''Swiss'' cheese itself.

Gruyere is made from fresh untreated milk. There are no chemical additives, nor is the milk pasteurized.

Forty-five percent of the total production, is exported, with the largest consumer of all cheese being Italy.

Finland, Austria, and the Eastern countries are also importers, much more so than the US.

The expensiveness of Gruyere lies in the intricacies of Swiss regulation and control of the milk industry.

The price of milk in Switzerland is kept high, making it the most expensive milk in the world. And it takes 12 1/2 pounds of milk to make just one pound of hard cheese.

Because of competition with other foreign and even domestic cheeses, Gruyere is actually cheaper to buy in the US than in its native Switzerland.

So, while it may be more romantic to eat Gruyere in the old town itself, you will actually save money if you buy it in your local specialty cheese shop.

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