Here, in one of Switzerland's most bucolic cantons, the mountain meadows and green hillsides are given over to tawny cows whose tinkling bells and earthy aromas fill the air. Not everyone likes the sound or the smell. But almost everyone is fond of the product - Gruy`ere cheese. Just ask any Fribourgeois, they will argue that Gruy`ere is one of the world's greatest cheeses. They point out its versatility. It can be melted, used in fondue, provide a meal with the region's rough mountain bread, or a desert with fruit.
For many Americans, a Gruy`ere is a Gruy`ere. But this is not the case. There are marked differences depending on age, point of production, and skills of the local cheesemakers.
A young Gruy`ere has a smooth, creamy taste with sweet notes. Older cheese is grainy in texture with nutty, sharper flavors.
Today, most Gruy`ere is made in modern ``fromageries'' by trained cheesemakers. These places look like laboratories and turn out a product that's consistent in taste and texture.
A small amount of Gruy`ere is made in the high mountain huts by the old methods. It's called alpege. It has the most varied character and is thought to be the finest. The flavors of these Gruy`eres vary according to the vegetation of the season and the maker's personal techniques.
The alpege Gruy`ere is a special product. It's rare and costs more than the fromagerie variety.
Actually everywhere Gruy`ere is made, there is a substantial range of quality. The simplest way to assess quality is by the amount of salt. An overly salty Gruy`ere is of low quality.
The maker has over-salted in order to speed up the aging process and rush the cheese to market. Great Gruy`ere must have finesse, many dimensions, and a fine, lingering taste.
Certainly the most demanding critics of Gruy`ere are the people who live in the villages of Fribourg where the cheese is made. Having been reared on Gruy`ere, they know the great from the merely good. There are nearly 50 villages where cheesemakers make Gruy`ere.
In the village of Giffers, set upon a hill south of Fribourg, lives the Haberle family, typical Gruy`ere adherents and masters of the regional kitchen.
Says Frau Haberle (they are German speakers in this mixed German-French canton), ``We used to have one of the finest cheesemakers here in the village, but he retired. We have a new man. He is good, but not as good as the old fellow, even though he studied under him for six months.''
The difference is somewhat perplexing to the villagers. However, the Haberle son, Rainer, has an explanation.
``To make really fine Gruy`ere is an art. You must have a special feel for the milk and the cheese. The old man had the feel, the new one has the training but not the feel. We hope the feel will come.''
Gruy`ere is the main ingredient in fondue, mixed usually with the other renowned Swiss cheeses, Appenzeller and Emanthaler. Here the villagers will normally go with straight Gruy`ere.
Making fine fondue is also an art. ``You absolutely must make fondue several times a week to know what you're doing,'' says Rainer Haberle. ``It requires great skill to make sure the fondue isn't too thin or too sticky. The quality and amount of the Gruy`ere will control this. We only make fondue once or twice a month, so we are not good with this.''
Quite possibly the best place to purchase Gruy`ere is in Bulle, the canton's second largest town, at Fromagerie G. Dougard. There are usually six to a dozen different types of Gruy`ere to select from and the salespeople are knowledgeable and patient with customers' questions. They say that Dougard supplies the Parisian restaurant Tailevent with its Gruy`ere.
The address: Bulle, Rue de Vevey 9, Tel: 029/271 87.