Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

History in the Making

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

History in the Making

Article excerpt

FOOD

BEE WILSON on the politics of Gruyere

We are often encouraged to believe that the greatest cheeses, like the greatest wines, must be made by individuals. This is the auteur theory of food and drink. When eating fine cheese, one sniffs for the personality beneath the rind. If it isn't the result of a single-minded artisan getting his hands milky, it can't be first-rate. It must be generic, bland, plastic. But there is at least one great and venerable cheese that disproves the auteur theory. Gruyere, despite its popularity among the winter-holidaying bourgeoisie, is a communist cheese. Its interior may be yellow, but its rind is printed defiantly red.

True Gruyere comes from the Gruyere valley, in French Switzerland. The name of both the place and the cheese derives originally from Charlemagne's officiers gruyers, who sold fuel to alpine cheese-makers in exchange for cheese; and the cheeses resembling Gruyere go back at least to the 12th century. Its nutty flavour comes from milk squeezed from red and white cattle- either Montbeliardes or Pie-rouges. It is waxily packed in rounds weighing 50-60kg. Its distinctive texture is dense and hard. The French, snooty as they are about the Swiss table, expect it to come with holes ("eyes"), like cartoon cheese; so holes are specially created for the French export market. True Gruyere, however, can't afford to have holes; its function is to sustain hard-working mountain communities through the winter. …

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