For cheese lovers keen to pilgrimage around the world in search of the good stuff, Europe offers plenty of opportunity to nibble through dairy’s perfected promise. On France’s northern coast there’s the tiny town of Camembert, in Italy just a short drive from Modena (the home of balsamico) you’ll find Parma’s massive wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and on the French side of Switzerland the picturesque town of Gruyere crafts an infamous alpine cheese lovingly enjoyed by locals via Swiss cheese fondue.
Stepping out of the Gruyere train station I was greeted by rolling hills covered in Springtime wild flowers. I was instantly greeted by a family of cows, the town’s unofficial mascots, which one can hear at all times of the day as vintage Swiss bells dangle from their necks, offering an always present romantically rural melody.
If you’re a cheese lover dreaming of a weekend away in Gruyere be sure to book yourself a homestay with a local cheese farm family. The charming Swiss-chalet styled B&B Le Ferme du Bourgoz has been open to visitors for over 17 years, offering three quaint and comfortable rooms with swoon-worthy views overlooking Gruyere Castle. Owned by 5th generation cheese farmers Jacques and Eliane Murith, guests are treated each morning to a locally inspired breakfast featuring orange juice, coffee, fresh bread, homemade jam, and the family’s own Gruyère d’Alpage AOP.
The best time of year to visit Gruyere is from June to September, when the Murith family is busy tending their cows at an altitude of 1500m near Mount Moleson. You can join the family on a hike to the hilltop farm and watch the aged old tradition before your very eyes. They produce Gruyère d’Alpage AOP in the summer months, Vacherin Fribourgeois d’Alpage AOP in the autumn, and whey cheese, cream and butter all year round. In total they produce 6-7 tons of Gruyère AOP d’Alpage each year. That’s 250 wheels of cheese!
Skip down the steps into town and directly across from the train station you’ll find La Maison du Gruyere. The multi-sensory museum exhibit offers visitors a cheese-tastic self guided tour where the history of Gruyere cheese is explained thanks to handy audio guides.
You can sniff samples of local florals which impart their aromas into the town’s iconic alpine cheese, peek through windows as dairy experts add rennet and cut casein in massive milk baths, and gawk at never-ending halls stacked with cheese wheels ready for ripening.
At the end of the tour take a step into the mini-market and you’ll find a wild variety of local food products (from crunchy meringue to quality chocolate bars) as well as a serious selection of Swiss cheeses. Be sure to sample through each of the Gruyere samples to get a better idea of how the flavour changes over time. Plop each cube into your mouth, let it warm across your palate, then spread it across your tongue and slowly inhale. You’ll be amazed to see how the flavour profile of each cheese changes during the aging process, particularly the alpine variety which is most coveted as the cows diet in the mountains (sweet florals) can be appreciated in each bite.
After filling up on cheese fight the fat by enjoying a leisurely hike up to the historic medieval village. It’s here you’ll find a petite square with frothing fountain, a handful of boutique hotels, gift shops, and sun-soaked patios.
At the end of the road you’ll find the imposing Gruyere Castle, which dates back to the 13th century, and today is a museum depicting 800 years of regional architecture, history and culture. Inside the castle you’ll find endless rooms decorated in period furniture, art and elegant halls covered in finely painted frescos. Be sure to skip onto the chateau’s spacious balcony and you’ll enjoy jaw-dropping views of the stunning castle garden, beautifully juxtaposed against the lush green farm-scape beyond its ancient walls.
No trip to Gruyere is complete without the ultimate indulgence, a decadent Swiss fondue feast. Grab a seat at Chalet de Gruyeres, the local experts on all things molten cheese, and fork your way through a divine dinner, best accompanied by a bottle of cool white wine.
If you’ve traveled Switzerland extensively you’ll notice that fondue’s recipe varies depending on where you are in the country. Local cheeses are substituted wherever you are and each community seems to have a patriotic opinion on who does it best. In North America we’ve been taught that cheese fondue is equal parts Gruyere and Emmental, but locals in the country’s cheese capital scoff at the idea (they say Emmental is too stringy and rubbery).
I think it’s safe to say that Gruyere has perfected the fondue tradition, serving up a sublimely creamy rendition they call Fondue Moitié-Moitié (half and half) featuring a perfect balance of alpine aged Gruyere with creamy Vacherin Fribourgeois.
It’s here where the Swiss cheese adventure blissfuly ends. As petite potatoes and cubes of crunchy baguette twirl on forks laden with stringy cheese you can hear the crunch and munch of vinegary cocktail onions and gherkins. Enjoy a slow waddle back down to the farmhouse, waving goodbye to cute cobblestone streets as you rub your bloated belly with glee.
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