Named after the Swiss valley from which it originates in the canton of Fribourg, Gruyère is a work of art. Made from cow's milk fed on grasses on the edge of the Vaudois uplands, it has a sweet flavor that makes it perfect for an appetizer or as an ingredient in the main dish.
Starting out with a nutty flavor, it becomes more assertive with age, sometimes having hints of mushroom. This latter is particularly good for creating a fine fondue. A quiche made with Gruyère has a less tangy flavor than those that use cheddar and this smooth variety is highly prized among diners. Since it melts well, it is excellent added to soup or used as a topping.
But even just sliced and laid onto a fine piece of bread this magnificent creation is a taste delight. The slightly salty taste, the result of the brine used to create it, adds an interesting component.
In many incarnations, raw milk is heated to 93°F (34°C), then rennet is added to curdle the milk. U.S. food laws severely restrict the manufacture and import of anything made from unpasteurized milk. But Gruyère made from pasteurized cow's milk is still a delectable cheese.
The result is cut and stirred and the whey (the liquid portion) drained off. The final product is molded into wheels that can be up to 100 lbs (45 kg), which are then sliced into small wedges for sale.
It can be cured at room temperature for as short as two months, but fine Gruyère is typically aged for 10 to 12 months. The result is a pale yellow pate and a golden brown rind, with pea-sized holes. Swiss cheeses use a propionibacter shermani organism to curdle the milk that releases carbon dioxide. This forms bubbles which produce the holes.
Fortunately for lovers of fine cheese, it isn't necessary to travel to Gruyère to get a great sample. Though that would make for a great vacation! The knowledge of how to make a good Gruyère has been distributed wherever these artisans emigrated - France, America and elsewhere. But to get 'the real deal' the true connoisseur will at least want to be somewhere near the French Alps, say in Comté or Beaufort where excellent varieties can be found.
Like many cheeses (and wines), true Gruyère is part of the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) system. This legal system guarantees that products from a specific region carrying its name actually do originate there. Whether this is a guarantee of high quality and superior taste is a matter of some debate among cheese gourmets, as it is among wine connoisseurs.
But whatever officials may say, you will find that a semi-firm Gruyère from a fine producer is a tasty addition to your table.