Article Archives: "War of the Cheeses," 1995

This article originally appeared in American Way Magazine and was nominated for the 1996 James Beard Journalism Award for Magazine Feature Writing without Recipes.

The flag of Gruyère flutters over the stone ramparts of an ancient walled castle on an Alpine cliff. The flag is white with a fierce-looking bird in the middle of it. Legend has it that the first Count of Gruyère went out hunting one day with the intention of naming his County after the first thing he killed. He killed a crane, (a grue in French) and thus became the Count of Gruyère.

I thought I’d run across some cheesemakers here in the walled village of Gruyères (the name of the village is spelled with an “s” on the end to keep it separate from the name of the region), but there aren’t any. As it turns out, this fortified village wasn’t built to produce the stuff, it was built to defend it. Defending cheese may sound like a pretty strange idea, but by now I’m used to it. In fact, I’ve just travelled all the way from my home in Texas to the Swiss Alps because I’m feeling so defensive about cheese.

Who would have thought that a recipe for cheese enchiladas I wrote for American Way would end up turning me into a target for European nationalists, the enemy of a secret society, and ultimately a combatant in an ancient and bitter international rivalry?

All I said was that the gruyère enchilada I ate at a Paris Tex-Mex joint was one of the best I’d ever had. I gave a recipe and said that it was no wonder the French made great cheese enchiladas since they have the world’s best cheese. (American Way, September 15, “Enchiladas, S’il Vous Plaît”) That little recipe article was enough to suck me into an improbable international food fight.

A reader named Frank Binzoni of Pleasanton, California wrote to the editor of this magazine to challenge my veracity on the subject of cheese and to suggest that I must be something of a yokel. “Gruyère is a cheese made only in Switzerland,” Binzoni stated. “Walsh should get out of Texas more often.”

I was sure that gruyère was made in France as well as Switzerland since I’d eaten a lot of French gruyère, so I looked into the matter. Then I naively called Binzoni at his home one day and read him a citation from Larousse Gastronomique, the French food encyclopedia. The article stated that gruyère was made in both France and Switzerland. Binzoni was not impressed. The fact that the encyclopedia was written by Frenchmen seemed to make its accuracy doubtful to him.

This was starting to reek of a larger controversy.

The article in the food encyclopedia went on to explain that both the French and the Swiss claim to have invented gruyère and that the argument has never really been settled. As a food writer who has judged hot sauce contests, beer tastings, and bagel bake-offs, I figured I’d make the call. Per Binzoni’s advice, I would get out of Texas, taste the cheeses in question on their respective home turfs, and vindicate the authenticity of French gruyère.

But what looked to me like a cheesy little argument over bragging rights turned out to be a major cultural battle, one of the longest-running trade disputes in food history. It was not a subject to be joked about, at least not within the confines of this Swiss castle.

In the courtyard of the Chateau de Gruyères, a secret society assembles to repeat their ceremonial rites. Everyone is dressed in flowing white robes with bright red and yellow sashes; each wears a medal of a crane standing on a wheel of cheese. They stand before a table spread like an altar with the implements of cheese-making. In the center, a huge gruyère is elevated on a wooden yoke once worn by a farmer to carry wheels of cheese down from the mountains.

Placing one hand on the cheese, each member of the 27th Chapter of the Confrerie de Gruyère swears to uphold the honor of their beloved Gruyère. New members are taught the secrets of the society. “We teach them how to love Gruyère,” says the Confrere’s Gouvernor. “It’s a holy mission.”

But the mission of the Confrere de Gruyère isn’t just to run around in flowing robes and pledge allegiance to the cheese. They are also involved in a long-running crusade to convince that world that only the Swiss make true Gruyère. And to combat infidels like me who say otherwise.

In fact, the Swiss have been trying to secure the exclusive rights to the name “gruyère” in international legal squirmishes since 1939. The treasured AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) designation, the same territorial guarantee that applies to Bordeaux, Champagne and Roquefort, would greatly increase the value of the more than 7000 tons of gruyère cheese that Switzerland exports each year. And that would make the members of the Confrere de Gruyère very happy.

The border between Switzerland and France cuts straight across the top of the Jura mountain range. On the French side is the province of Franche-Comté. They make cheese here too. For centuries, they called their cheese gruyère.

The Swiss claim that the French usurped the name from the region of Gruyère. Not so, say the French. In the Middle Ages, an officer of the French government called a “gruyer” presided over forest lands and collected taxes — in the form of cheese. It is this gruyer that their cheese is named after, claim the French, and they can show tax records that date back to the 1100s to prove it.

With the assistance of an army of scholars, historians and lawyers, the French have successfully foiled every attempt the Swiss have ever made to lock up the name of gruyère. The legal issue boils down to one simple question: Was it the Swiss or the French who made gruyère cheese first?

“It was neither,” says Jean Arnaud, a seventh-generation French cheese man. “I have 150 books in my library about this cheese,” he smiles, “25 of them are just about the subject of the competition between the Swiss and the French over the name gruyère.”

Arnaud’s family business, Fromageries Arnaud Freres, is in Poligny, just across the mountains from Switzerland. In a meeting room above the cheese-ripening vaults, he gives me the benefit of his own considerable knowledge about the subject. On a blackboard he draws a big oval. “You see, this is the Jura Mountain range,” he says. “In Roman times, the Jura region was the homeland of an ethnic group called the Sequanes,” he says, writing their name inside the oval. “Roman texts dated from 40 B.C. describe the cheese process used in Sequany — the wood, the milk, the salt. It is the same process.”

He slashes a chalk line down the middle of the oval from north to south, dividing the ancient land of Sequany in two. “This is the modern border between France and Switzerland,” he informs me. “The first gruyère was neither Swiss nor French, because in 40 B.C. neither country existed.”

In 1959, after decades of fighting over the name, cheesemakers in the Franche-Comté region decided that protecting the name “gruyère” was hopeless and applied for an appellation under the name “Comté.” (con-TAY) “In France, everybody knows the name gruyère, but Comté has a problem,” explains Arnaud. In light of the confusion, Comté cheese producers market their cheese as “Comté, the king of gruyères.”

“Comté is still a gruyère,” Arnaud tells me as we descend the stairs to his underground cheese vaults. But nowadays, the term gruyère has come to describe a family of cheeses, he says. Down in the vaults, I get a practical lesson in the gruyère family history.

With a tool that resembles a hollowed-out ice pick, Arnaud cuts a core sample out of a huge wheel of Comté. After I break some off to taste, the little cylinder of cheese is neatly plugged back into the wheel. Then he takes a similar sample out of a Swiss Gruyère. There is a big difference in flavor. The Comté is mild and nutty, the Swiss Gruyère is stronger and creamier.

Swiss Gruyére is made with full milk, Comté is made from milk from which the cream has been skimmed, so Comté has 10% less fat, Arnaud explains. Both cheeses are outstanding, but I confess to Arnaud I am partial to the stronger flavor and creamier texture of the Swiss. In that case, Arnaud insists, I must taste Beaufort, another French gruyére from the Savoy region.

Beaufort is a gruyére that is made in the old-fashioned way. While Comté and Swiss Gruyére are made in large cooperatives these days, there are still farmers who make cheese in the mountains like it was made in the Middle Ages. This kind of cheese is called fromage de alpage, it is made from the full milk of one herd of cows which have been grazing in the sweet grass and wildflowers of a mountain pasture. The Beaufort sample is buttery and fruity, without a doubt the fullest-flavored gruyére cheese I have ever tasted.

Of course, the Swiss have their own fromage de alpage called L’Etivaz which I also taste in Arnaud’s cellar. It is even stronger than the Beaufort, a wonderful, rich, cheese with a creamy texture and nutty aftertaste. I can’t decide whether I like the Beaufort or the L’Etivaz better, but I imagine either one would make a pretty awesome enchilada.

After tasting my way through the family, it easy for me to understand why the Swiss are having so much trouble trying to insist that one kind of cheese is the true gruyère. Arnaud points out that cheeses called gruyère are also made in Wisconsin, Argentina, and Australia these days. Surprisingly, Arnaud confessed that he had recently been consulted by a delegation of Swiss cheese authorities who asked his advice on their latest effort to gain their own appellation.

“I told them it would be nearly impossible to get an appellation for gruyère now,” says Arnaud. “Swiss gruyère is really good cheese and I hope we find a way to recognize it, but it’s just too hard at this point to tell everybody else in the world to stop. Maybe they can get an appellation if they call it Gruyère of Switzerland or Fribourg,” he says with some sympathy.

And so the cheese feud continues. The Swiss continue to claim that theirs is the only true gruyère and the French refuse to concede. The two sides will argue their case once again before the AOC authorities in 1998.

And I thought my friends back in Texas were passionate about barbecue.