Stuart Forster visits Switzerland to find out about what goes into making Swiss cheese at La Maison de l’Etivaz.
Every autumn the 70 Swiss families involved in the production of L’Etivaz mountain cheese learn how successful their year has been.
Their wheels of cheese, stored within the modern cellars of La Maison de l’Etivaz, are weighed and purchased by the cooperative controlling the production process. The texture, colour, aroma and external appearance of the cheeses that have been delivered throughout the summer are assessed as part of strict quality controls that help maintain L’Etivaz’s regional Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) quality certification. In 2013 445 tonnes of this hard cheese, which some people compare to Gruyère, was produced.
Produced seasonally at altitude
L’Etivaz is produced only between 10th May and 10th October, using milk from cows grazing on mountain pastures up at an altitude of between 1,000 and 2,000 meters. This factor influences the character of the cheese as Alpine herbs and flora help give L’Etivaz its distinctive flavour, which is a touch fruity and has a nutty undertone.
In 130 mountainside farms between Lake Geneva and Les Diablarets cows are milked each evening. Their milk is allowed to stand overnight, allowing the cream to rise, before being heated in copper cauldrons hung over wood fires. It’s a traditional process and one that would have been familiar to cheesemakers living in the Alps 500 years ago.
Many people visualize Swiss cheese as riddled with holes, technically known as ‘eyes’, formed by bubbles. L’Etivaz, though, is solid. The newly formed wheels of cheese are pressed overnight up in mountain chalets, helping to make the presence of eyes unlikely, before being delivered to the chalet in the hamlet of L’Etivaz, where 150 people live.
Swiss cheese in the cellar
Cheese has been matured in the cellars of La Maison de L’Etivaz since 1934, two years after the cooperative’s foundation. The ripening process takes a minimum of 135 days. Some of the cheeses – which tend to weigh between 15 and 35kg – are matured for 22 months, becoming pale yellow. Around 800 to 1000 of the 17,000 to 19,000 cheeses delivered each summer are selected for extended ripening, lasting 30 months. These are eventually served as dry, intense tasting rolled shavings, known locally as rebibes.
When the white-coloured fresh cheeses are delivered to La Maison de L’Etivaz they are steeped in a 22 per cent saline solution for 24 hours, to provide flavor and help a crust to form. The cheeses, which have a diameter of between 40 and 65 cm, are then stacked on shelves for a week, where they are turned daily have salt rubbed into them. For the next 15 days they are then rubbed with salt three times a week before being left to mature. The cheeses are marked with a maker’s number, allowing the annual output of each producer to be tracked.
La Maison de L’Etivaz has a delicatessen selling regional products and runs tours of its cellars.
Where to stay
The Hôtel de Ville (Grand Rue 70, 1660 Château-d’Oex, tel. +41 26 924 7477) has en suite, single to family-sized guestrooms and places you in the heart of Château-d’Oex. The hotel has a wood-panelled breakfast room and bar with leather sofas.
Find out more, including how to visit the cellars, on the La Maison de l’Etivaz website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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