Sustainable Swiss dairies produce exceptional cheese.
Swiss artisans have been making cheese since the Middle Ages. Isolated in secluded hamlets on mountains and in valleys, they developed cheese unique to their region. This tradition continues to this day. I’m passionate about cheese, so when I heard that Switzerland produced around 450 kinds of cheese (191,000 tons), I knew I had to track down cheese dairies that have been making exceptional cheese for centuries.
For our first dairy, my husband and I went to rural Bellelay. We took the train to Moutier and then a postal bus. The bus winded its way up and down hilly terrain through small towns and open fields until it came to a stop in Bellelay.
Located in the French-speaking Bernese Jura, this tiny village mainly consists of the post office, a hotel, the famous Bellelay Abbey and houses scattered among fields along a country road. We walked up this road for about 10 minutes, passing a fenced-in area with horses, and reached our destination: the Maison de la Tête de Moine.
Tête de Moine AOP Cheese
The Association of Tête de Moine Producers states: “Tête de Moine AOP is a sustainable product since it has been produced for over 800 years.”
Lush pastures surrounded by tall fir trees grow on chalky soil found only at this altitude of 700-1300 meters. Irrigated by frequent rainfalls, they provide grass, clover and other nutritional plants for the cows. Less than 10% of their diet comes from imported concentrates. Nearly 100% of the water for milk production is pristine rainwater.
According to their Code of Practice, roughage must average at least 70% of the dairy cattle’s diet. Somatotropin, products containing urea, animal flour and growth hormones or products of the same type are not allowed. Neither is the distribution of ensiled forages of all kinds. All Tête de Moine milk producers must meet the Swiss requirements for sustainability in milk production.
Tête de Moine is a cylindrical semi-hard silky cheese that melts quickly. It is made with raw milk, containing no additives. Traditionally, Tête de Moine is shaved using a girolle, a rotating cheese-cutting tool invented in 1982. A girolle creates delicate, airy rosettes that reveal the cheese’s fragrant flavor.
Tête de Moine is available in three versions: the delicate Classic, aged at least 75 days; the sharp Reserve, aged four months; and the Extra, aged six months. Serve Tête de Moine on bread, in salads or as a garnish to add flavor to pasta, vegetables or any other dish.
Maison de la Tête de Moine, Le Domaine 1, Bellelay
I was privileged to chat with Charly Schmied, the long-time cheese expert at Maison de la Tête de Moine. Charly explained that their exclusive milk providers are small and large farmers in the surrounding mountain pastures. This region is the only one with the unique blend of aromatic herbs and plants that give this cheese its unmistakable flavor. Schmied said, “Nowadays, we produce 2,600 tons of cheese a year.” It is a regional cheese not made anywhere else.
A great way to learn about ancient cheesemaking methods, including wood-fired manufacturing procedures, is to attend a demonstration in this historic cheese dairy founded in the 1700s. You will also learn how to create the airy cheese rosettes. An iPad exhibit shows how cream, butter and cheese are made using traditional and modern utensils.
A beautifully laid-out museum on the second floor displays historical information and tools and utensils, including girolles. Downstairs are a cafe and a store selling local specialties.
Outside, large intricate sculptures of animals created by a local farmer and artist adorn the front lawn. In 2018, they were made of hay; in 2019 of roots and tree branches. Meeting Maison’s sustainability objectives, all materials come from local forests.
Retracing our steps, we walked down the country road to the renowned Bellelay Abbey. Here is where monks first made this famous cheese over 800 years ago, later named Tête de Moine (monk’s head) in the 18th century. Originally a monastery, in the late 19th century a section was converted into a psychiatric clinic.
A visit to this historic Abbey is a must-do to see the stunning hall of this baroque church. Light streaming through large windows illuminates the majestic high and wide white interior; its timeless elegance is accentuated by delicate pastel-colored murals. On the second floor is the magnificent blue and gold reproduction of a Joseph Bossard organ. Artists congregate here, and there are exhibitions throughout the year.
Our second destination was Glarus, the small, picturesque capital of the Canton Glarus, easily reached by train from any major Swiss city (only about one hour from Zurich). Dominating its beautiful scenery is the towering 9,560-ft Glaernisch mountain.
Glarner Schabziger Herb Cheese
This conical-shaped cheese is produced using skim cow milk from the Glarus region. It owes its unique flavor and appealing pale lime color to the addition of finely-ground dry leaves of blue fenugreek (Trigonella melilotus-caerulea), an expensive herb brought to Europe in ancient times from the Middle East.
Schabziger is a semi-hard cheese, matured three to six months in a long and complex manufacturing procedure. However, their Sap Sago is an extra-hard cheese made especially for export. Sap Sago is mildly dried for an additional 14 days for longer storage life. Exports are mainly to the Netherlands and Germany, with a smaller amount to the United States, where you can find it under the name Sap Sago.
In 1463, the Canton Glarus established regulations to create a uniform standard for the production of the Glarner Schabziger cheese, called Ziger at that time, thereby creating the first product brand in Switzerland.
The healthy and aromatic Schabziger cheese will add a new dimension to your culinary creations, whether you use it in hot or cold dishes. Mixing the grated cheese with equal parts of soft butter creates a delicious paste to spread on fresh bread or crackers.
GESKA AG, Glarus, Ygrubenstrasse 14, Glarus
The ecologically-minded and worldwide exclusive producer of Schabziger, GESKA AG, is an extremely efficient operation on the outskirts of Glarus. All processes are located onsite, from cheese production to shipping to administration.
Its milk is exclusively delivered within the region of Glarus, and it has energy-efficient production. Its certificates include Swiss Guarantee, Mountain certification, Alpinavera, of which sustainability is an important part. Its farmers have to fulfill the requirements, such as they can only use 30% of foreign fodder at the maximum. And there are many other regulations that cover the sustainability.”
Our two-hour tour was worth every minute. The lectures were highly interesting, and we also were able to visit all the facilities, including the production site. To enter the production site, we were required to done protective gowns, head covers, gloves and shoe covers. All of us giggled as we looked at each other in our alien costumes.
At the end of the tour, a spread of this delicious cheese awaited us, accompanied by a glass of white wine. If you want to take home a souvenir, you can choose from an assortment of cheese products, cookbooks, whimsical coffee mugs and more.
Last but not least, we decided to visit Gruyères, home of the world-famous Gruyère cheese.
Traced back to artisans in the 12th century in the Canton Fribourg, the nutty semi-hard Gruyère AOP cheese (Appellation d’Origine Protégée, Protected Designation of Origin) is the best-known Swiss cheese. Gruyère cheese is synonymous with the Gruyères region in the French section of western Switzerland.
People love this cheese for its aromatic taste, texture and versatility. It tastes just as good cold or au gratin as in potatoes dauphinoise, but it’s renowned as an essential ingredient of the classic Swiss cheese fondue.
According to the Interprofession du Gruyère, “Le Gruyère AOP is a sustainable product, regarding the main aspects of production: 1) Respect for the environment in cow fodder, milk quality, milk transport and Gruyère AOP production. 2) Decentralized economic development. 3) Maintenance of the social aspects in the production areas and 4) Compliance with strict regional land planning rules.”
The Gruyère AOP production has very strict specifications, such as 70% of the fodder is dry matter and comes from the farm, no additives in the fodder. The radius of supplying the cheese dairies is 20 km maximum. They have 160 cheese dairies producing Gruyère AOP in villages, 11 village organic dairies and 55 small alp dairies. Almost 1,700 milk producers deliver milk to these dairies.
They produce the classic Gruyère AOO, the Gruyère d’Alpage AOP and the Gruyère AOP BIO. The youngest Gruyère AOP is matured five months, but more common is six, eight, 10 and 12 months.
La Maison du Gruyère, Place de la Gare 3, Gruyères
Attend a live cheesemaking session at La Maison du Gruyère, situated across the Gruyères train station. Through floor-to-ceiling glass windows on the second floor, you can observe the cheesemakers below going through the seven production stages, starting with warming fresh milk in enormous copper vats. An interactive exhibition engages all your senses: you can touch cowhide, smell herbs, taste cheese, view videos, and listen to audiotapes (available in 13 languages).
Stop by their cellar downstairs to see rows and rows of cheese wheels in various stages of maturity. The cellar can store 7,000 cheese wheels, each weighing between 25 and 40 kilos.
A short ride up the hill is picturesque Gruyères, a traffic-free village of about 2,000 people. We strolled up the cobblestone street to the 13th-century Gruyères Castle, showcasing paintings by Corot, beautiful stained-glass windows from the Middle Ages, antique furniture and a massive fireplace.
Don’t miss the excellent Tibet Museum. Yes, there is a Tibetan museum in this small village! Its treasures include 300 sacred Buddhist sculptures, paintings and ceremonial objects. The exquisite small Vairocana Buddha radiates serenity and is seen as the universal Buddha.
The HR Giger Museum features surrealist art by this world-famous artist, who won an Oscar in 1980 for Best Achievement in Visual Effects in the movie “Alien.” Don’t miss taking a look at the surreal and macabre HG Giger Bar next door. I guarantee you will be surprised.
Now it was time to relax and savor a bubbling Swiss cheese fondue made with Gruyère, Appenzeller and Emmental, or a Moitie-Moitie: half Gruyère and half Vacherin. And, of course, a nice bottle of white wine. A grand finale to our tour of three cheese dairies, each unique in their settings, cheese products and history.