PRODUCER FEATURE – GRUYERE ALPAGE FROM RIGGISALP DAIRY
Production of Gruyere dates back to at least 1115, making it one of the world’s oldest cheeses. If we were to take a time machine back to a time before electricity and modern machinery, we would find Swiss farmers making cheese in almost the exact same manner Gruyere Alpage is being made this very day. So while we have not yet mastered time travel, we can momentarily put ourselves in the shoes of that Swiss farmer from 900 years ago when we take a bite of Alpage Gruyere.
What makes Gruyere Alpage so unique? There are numerous factors.
The Cows Alpage cheeses are only made from April through October. During the springtime, dairymen move their herds from the lowlands up to Alpine mountain chalets, a tradition known as transhumance. An Alpine meadow is quite possibly the most perfect place on earth for a cow. In the summer, the fields produce a wide variety of fresh and moist mountain grasses, herbs, and wildflowers, a wonderful and diverse diet for the cows. And the cool weather high in the mountains produce the ideal environment for the cows, who love to be outside but don’t like to be hot. Farmers have been bringing their animals up to alps for centuries because it produces the best milk for cheese. It is a far rarer practice nowadays, but luckily a few farmers still follow this traditional model.
The Alpine Dairy Alpage cheeses are made in a small Swiss chalet located right on the alp where the herd grazes. Often there are a couple rooms attached for the living quarters of the cheesemaker and dairymen who look after the herd. Inside the cheese making room, it is as rustic of an operation as one will find. The milk is still heated in copper vats over a wood fire. Pulleys are used to lift the large volume of curd out of the vat. Traditional manual wooden cheese presses are used for the young wheels. Work is still done by hand, and in small batches. The cheesemaker is often retired after working for decades mastering their craft in a traditional dairy, but takes this summer job on the alp to go back to the work they know and love so well. Cheese is made in very small volumes, often a handful of wheels a day, then kept in a simple cellar and turned often. At the end of the season, these young wheels will be transferred to a cellar master who will carefully age them for another 12 months until they are fully matured.
Riggisalp Our 2020 Alpage production of Gruyere will come from Riggisalp. Located in Fribourg, Riggisalp is a very historic Alpage. The first Alpage seasons here began over 400 years ago, and the chalet where the dairy is located is more than 150 years old (although the dairy was recently updated in 2019). The herd on Riggisalp is owned by the Schmitten Cattle and Alpine Cooperative, which is the oldest dairy cooperative in Fribourg. Roughly 320 animals were on the alp in 2020 when this year’s release was produced, but the majority were young animals known as “Gustis”. Only 61 animals produced the milk that went to the dairy. There, master cheese maker Bernard Schneuwly turned that milk into just 256 wheels of Alpage Gruyere over the course of the herds six months of pasture at Riggasalp. At the end of the season, the herd was dressed up in flowers and bells and marched back down to the valley, a traditional parade that has gone on for centuries.
We recently tasted some of the 2020 Gruyere production of Riggisalp, and while the cheese still has months to continue aging, the early glimpse was very promising!
– “Beefier, brighter, fruitier, less dried out. Pleasant mouthfeel, and robust. This is a great example of what Alpage Gruyere should be. Best Alpage sample I remember trying in years”
– “Fruity and herbal, mild notes of onion and broth. Good clean flavors, with a slightly creamy mouthfeel and full flavor finish.”
– “I can taste the wood and fire that cooked the curds, like some other alpage cheeses it has the taste of the dairy itself. There is a distinct hay/floral/mineral flavor that comes from the forage on which the cows graze. It also has a strong raw milk flavor alive and tingly. Notes of durum pasta, leek, broth, sweet cream and Bolognese sugo.”
– “Savory/brothy, nutty with a sweet-like finish. Slightly itchy on the side of the tongue. It did taste a little young which would make sense.”