We knew it would be a fast trip, and the time spent waiting for our flight in the Newark airport did not make it any easier. Switzerland was calling and we could not have been any more prepared (and less ready) for what we were going to experience.
We landed in Geneva and made haste to the Jura region of France for a brief stop at Marcel Petite’s famed aging rooms at Fort Sant Antoine. As always, visiting Claude and the crew to taste and pick our wheels of Comté was a resounding success. The Comté offered to us was as spectacular as ever and we were introduced to new fruitières* with all new flavor profiles. This means in a few months, our customers will also be introduced to these new flavors. Exciting, but I digress…
Switzerland was our focus. Leaving France behind, we arrived in Villeneuve on the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac du Monde) to meet with Bernard. Immediately, we were swept up and driven north into the Alpine hills and mountains of Gruyère. We steadily climbed until we reached our first stop, an amazing, small farm where the cheesemaker makes three cheeses, Gruyère, Gruyère Alpage and a small Reblochon style washed rind, as well as some very fresh tasting yogurt. Bernard sells his cheese, but does not age it. This allows the cheesemaker to employ both his son and a full time helper – a nice philosophy that assured us we were dealing with the right people. They had just finished cleaning after their afternoon cheesemaking and excitedly showed us the cave. Hundreds of wheels of Gruyère at all ages sat in meticulous condition. The Gruyère, by the way, was fantastic. Notes made and photos taken, more work had to be done and so we said our goodbyes.
Our next stop was Bernard’s own cave. On a winding mountain road, we continued to climb higher in altitude. As we rounded a tight curve, we made a sudden stop. The flat, rocky wall aside the road seemed an odd place to stop until we realized this was the entrance to the cave. This ‘cave’ was originally a Swiss army fort built during World War II (forts make excellent cheese caves).
It originally housed up to 300 men and was connected to other forts through underground passages. While others have tried to convert these forts, few have had the success that Bernard has. He has slowly transformed each room to hold distinct cheeses. The cave is not yet filled, there are numerous rooms and whole upper and lower levels that are still untouched.
Walking through room after room tasting different cheeses was as impressive and fun as it sounds. Discovering unique flavors of Gruyère from different farms, as well as a host of other styles of cheese, was eye-opening. Many of the cheeses had flavor profiles that we had never tasted in the US. The complexity and diversity within a range of such closely related cheeses was astonishing.
After tasting, Bernard took us deep into the mountain. A small door led into a hand carved stairwell heading down at a treacherously steep angle. A long walk down these steps tooks us to a small tunnel with even more rooms. As we neared the end of the tunnel, Bernard opened a door that led to a small wooden bridge that would take us to yet another fort, which a friend of Bernard’s is also using as a cave.
We walked over a gorgeous ravine into the next fort and were offered a visit to see those cheeses, but the hour long walk up deterred us. After all, we already had the task of climbing the 900 steps back to Bernard’s cave (Ihsan swears it was 1,200 steps!). Our legs would be feeling that for days.
The drive back to the lake was a nice prelude to the finish of the day. A wine tasting with a friend of Bernard’s who makes fantastic local wines, followed by a pleasant dinner helped us get ready for the following day.
The next morning, we arrived at Bernard’s cave in Villeneuve where we tasted yet more cheese and, again, we were blown away. Throughout the day, we visited more cheesemakers and farms, tasting, talking and writing as we went. The highlight of the day was our first stop, an Alpage cheese maker in the town of Moléson. By law, the cheese can only be made from May to September, using the milk from cows grazing at certain altitudes, and it must be heated over a wood fire. The old, traditional manner of doing everything by hand includes cutting and straining of the curds, which is quite a sight to behold. We watched as the milk transformed from pure liquid to snow-white curds that would eventually become Vacherin Fribourgeois Alpage. The season was only about three weeks in, so were not able to taste any of the new batches, but we did taste his aged cheeses in the caves, and I am pleased to report that we will have some on our shelves soon!
A few farms later and our visit drew to a close. Bernard proved to be a fine tour guide through the beautiful mountains of Gruyère. We tasted many excellent cheeses that are sure to become new favorites for staff and customers alike. After we said our goodbyes, we headed into the small town of Nyon for a light dinner of lake fish – a well deserved finish to a quick moving and cheese-filled trip.
To view our current selection of Swiss cheeses, please click here.
*Fruitière is a word used to refer to a co-op where the cheese is made – it is a term used in the French Jura, the Savoie and Swiss Alps.
David Robinson is the International Cheese Buyer and a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.