Cheese jottings: Etivaz, Switzerland
It’s Swiss cheese, but not as you know it...
Ahh, cowbells. This is the sound that I woke to every morning of my all-too-brief visit to the Swiss Alps earlier this summer. I’m not sure why (something to do with typically underwhelming British summers?) but my internal holiday compass points me due south – usually in the direction of the Med – when the warmer months roll around. Seems I’ve really been missing out. There are those cowbells, there are blissful walks in high-altitude wildflower meadows… and cheese.
Alpine cheeses such as Comté and Gruyère are very much my bag, but I’d never tasted Etivaz. In a way, that’s a good thing because there is no match for tasting such a traditionally made, location-specific cheese on its home turf.
Production centres around the tiny hamlet of Etivaz in the Vaud canton. I suspect I’m right in saying that the name may be derived from ‘summer’ (l’été). The cheese, true to its name, is only made between 10 May and 10 October, and Etivaz (the cheese) is deeply rooted to a specific place, as well as a specific timeframe.
These high pastures are ski country come wintertime – glitzy Gstaad is just a few miles from Etivaz – but in summer, the slopes, lush with wildflowers and grasses, are the warm-weather home of herds of dairy cattle. After spending the snowy winters in the protected relative warmth of the valleys, they are brought up here when the weather is warm enough to graze all summer long, in an ancient system known as alpage, a form of what’s called vertical transhumance. (In 2019, incidentally, transhumance was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.) So Etivaz is both an Alpine cheese and a cheese d’alpage.
Etivaz is sometimes called ‘the grandfather of Gruyère’. Essentially, it’s made the way that Gruyère was made decades or even centuries ago. Back in the 1930s, a small group of local farmers turned their back on larger-scale Gruyère production, believing that the quality was being compromised.
These cheese rebels united to form the l’Etivaz cooperative, which now has about 71 members and they have been making Etivaz cheese the ‘old way’ since 1932. That means strictly local, using unpasteurised milk that has travelled minimal distance from milking parlour to dairy. The previous day’s soured whey is used to initiate fermentation and the curds are heated in copper cauldrons over a wood fire.
The cheeses are made by hand, in tiny amounts. Each dairy has its own specific microbes that give the cheese a distinctive taste. Add that to the evolving range of grasses and wildflowers on which the dairy cattle dine, and you have a cheese that encapsulates a specific time and place, rendered edible.
We bought our cheese from this gorgeous little kiosk; you just choose what you want and leave your Swiss francs in the honesty box. The makers, in this case Henri-Daniel and Aimée Raynaud, leave little hand-written notes about when and how the cheeses were made. Give me a kiosk like this over a fancy food hall any day. As well as the princely Etivaz, they sell another cheese called Sérac, made from whey (in a style similar to ricotta) and as young and fresh as an Alpine daisy.
So, what does Etivaz taste like? Intense. Savoury. Lots of umami. It has a subtle caramelly sweetness and a satisfying grassiness with an underlying nuttiness. I detected a slight smoky edge too, but that may have been pure fancy on my part. Etivaz is a relatively rare treat, although it is available in the UK (the excellent Courtyard Dairy is a stockist). If you can find it, pounce on it and savour it slowly. Better yet, come to the Vaud and seek it out here, to the music of cowbells.