Dear Friends and Family,
While in Switzerland, all I wanted to do was immerse myself in the world of Gruyère. And not just any Gruyère: Gruyère d’alpage. A cheese so delicious, so nutty and so buttery, I dreamed of eating my way through an entire wheel, kilo by kilo.
The most remarkable quality of Gruyère d’alpage, a quality that sets it apart from any regular Gruyère or Gruyère wannabe, is the way in which it is produced. As I experienced first-hand, thanks to my friendship with Jean-Pierre Hani (a Swiss dairy technician and consultant with whom I toured many dairies), the cheese is made exclusively in the mountains by families who uphold “old school” techniques, such as heating their milk over fire, and measure their success not as individuals but as a whole.
Many countries (such as Norway, Italy, Austria, France and Spain) also boast beautiful mountain cheese traditions. But none gives me quite as much hope. Not only is Gruyère d’alpage rooted in a regional economy, but it is competitive in global markets. If we want to preserve artisanal cheese and small farms around the world, this balance is key.
Locals might say their success stems from hard work over many generations and the values, such as solidarity and cooperation, that are embedded in their craft. But in all fairness, government subsidies (the highest in all of Europe for cheese) provide producers with much-needed economic relief. Federal funding also paved the way for international trade and a highly specialized industry (with top infrastructure and schools).
Jean-Pierre Hani voiced concern with regards to this financial aid, saying it may lower the bar for hard work or threaten the long-term viability of Swiss agriculture. These consequences, however, seem small in the grand scheme of things. Each summer, Gruyère d’alpage draws hundreds of tourists and employs many local kids, both of whom boost the economy (at home and abroad) and deepen respect for the mountains and people who work there. In so doing, the government protects the Swiss way-of-life, emphasizes cultural heritage over big agriculture and sends a powerful message: It is possible for global markets to benefit small cheesemakers, without compromising their integrity or traditions.