Gruyère: a lot of people know what it is. Many more come into the store looking for it because a recipe told them to. And even more people have no idea what I’m talking about right now.
In his book “Cheese Primer,” Steven Jenkins calls Swiss Gruyère, “Everything Swiss Emmental isn’t and wishes it were” (page 511). Sick burn, right?
Although it’s not as much of a heavyweight as the French and Swiss Emmentaler, Gruyère is another of the big cheeses. Weighing in at roughly 65 to 85 pounds, true Swiss Gruyère shares a similar history to Emmental: produced at various heights in the Alps, made from cows’ milk curds that are cooked in big copper vats, pressed into wheels, and then aged on racks in a chalet cave before being brought down the mountain to market.
Like giant Frisbees that you wouldn’t really want anyone to throw at you, wheels of Gruyère are flat and round, with a natural rind that you could eat if you wanted. The paste of Gruyère doesn’t typically have the same enormous eye holes that you’ll find in Emmental, but it actually used to historically—before the production of Swiss Gruyère became such a well-oiled machine that the bacteria living in the cheese and making it tasty no longer have gas (and therefore don’t have time to produce any eye holes).
Now you might have noticed that I just called it “Swiss Gruyère.” This means that wheels of cheese labeled “Gruyère” hail from—you guessed it— Gruyère, a district in French-speaking Switzerland. But only if they’re named “Gruyère.”
Why am I making this distinction? Because the same cheese also comes by a different name, Comté. Also called Gruyère de Comté, Comté is Swiss Gruyère’s French fraternal twin.
The cheeses follow the same recipe, the same aging process; but they are made from milk produced in two separate regions, each carrying its specific terroir. As with many, many of the cheeses we know, love and devour today, Gruyère and Comté are simply named for the places they are from.
So the next time you are in a cheese shop hunting for Gruyère and the cheesemonger tells you, “we’re out of Gruyère, but we have Comté,” don’t you dare pitch a fit because that’s not the cheese you want. It IS the cheese you want, you just don’t know you want it.
Comté is Gruyère; it’s just not from Gruyère.
So, you might ask, if they are the same cheese, are they at all different (aside from the whole milk and terroir thing I keep talking about on this blog)? Well, no two wheels of artisanal cheese are created equal. Moisture levels in the aging caves, the feed the cows ate, the individual cows themselves, how the milk was handled after it was collected—there are so many variables in the cheesemaking process that can contribute to differences in the flavor and texture of different wheels of the same cheese.
One of the biggest examples of a difference you can spot is that two wheels of the same cheese that you see on the shelf might be made from the milk of different seasons. If you look at them side by side and one is much more yellow, and the other is more of a pale beige, you are likely looking at a summer-milk cheese (yellow) alongside a winter-milk cheese (beige).
The photo for this post actually illustrates this difference, between our winter-milk Swiss Gruyère on the left and our last wheel of summer-milk Comté on the right. We just got in a new 90-pound monster-wheel of Comté, and its paste is the same color as the Gruyère’s.
Spring and summer milks are typically considered preferable to winter and fall milks, because the cows are out to pasture eating grass rather than hay and silage in a barn. That’s why the English started dying their cheeses orange with annatto, by the way—to mask the difference in color from different seasons’ milks.
But aside from the fact that we can’t always control how old the wheel of cheese is that you find cut up for sale, you are tasting the difference between a cheese made in Comté, France, and a cheese made in Gruyère, Switzerland. Essentially, you are tasting the difference between two neighboring regions of Europe.
I dare you to try them side by side. See what flavors you can taste, what scents you can smell. How are they similar or different? Which country’s cheese do you prefer?