Exploring the source of Alpine Cheese.... L'Etivaz

Hidden high in the beautiful Swiss mountains is terroir embraced by cheesemaking at its’ very best.  I am on my way to the valley of “Sciernes-Picats” to watch a delicious, barely known Swiss cheese being made.  “L’Etivaz” - pronounced  “LES - TEE - VA” a hard, raw, cows milk cheese.   As we drive up the curling roads & hair pin bends, we get delayed behind a herd of cows being taken to another mountain.  At first I am slightly anxious, but the cow bells that are ringing out from all corners of the canton, make me relax as they echo against ancient chalets.   It makes me realise that here; there is everything for perfect slowfood.  Snow-capped mountains, rising mist in the thick forests, pure streams flowing healthily, lush wild -flower valleys and sunshine that beams through the clouds. 

We are in between the communes of Rougemont and Château d’Oex, in the highland of the canton of Vaud.  This area is very special to me - my paternal ancestors were cheesemakers here.   The air is as fresh as it probably ever gets but life is hard in the mountains; cheesemaking is a life’s work.  As there is no automation, it is a high-maintenance skill.  We arrive at “La Cluse d’en-bas”- a traditional mountain chalet, with cows nestled cosily underneath (on the ground floor) and cheesemaking on the first floor.  We meet Alex, our cheesemaker who was also born and raised there, he has been making cheese for 60 years.


The precious milk (640 litres) from the Simmental cows is slowly being heated in a copper pot by wood fire to 57°C.  Rennet is added at the beginning to the pasture rich milk, then the curds are cut.  When it reaches 57° Alex checks the mix with his fingers, he shapes the curds in his hands to ensure they break and are not “floppy”.  When he is happy, the cheese is pulled off the wood fire causing a huge bellow of smoke.   He then dips his arms into ice-cold water, in preparation for submerging them into the hot milk (rather like chefs would traditionally do when making a caramel).  Muslin (cheesecloth) is slipped to the bottom of the pot, Alex expertly pulls the perfect amount of curds into his “net”.  This is a two-man job, but I am impressed by the precise amount of curds that fit expertly into the moulds (30kg) It is a joy to watch someone who has made perfection from so much practice. It is also so refreshing that hair nets are not worn and the method is so artisan.  The cheese is pressed and the wheel of cheese is aged for a minimum of 45 days in a cellar run by a cooperative. The cooperative set the price per kilo of cheese at the start of the season and they are in charge of selling the cheese too. 

Afterwards we skip over the mountain into Château d’OEx and have a picnic consisting of a piece of L’Etivaz, local bread, red wine and “speck” made from the lovely pigs who also live at the chalet.  I reflect on the synergies of pigs and cows - at my home in Leicestershire of course we have pork pie and stilton, one couldn’t really live without the other. The aged cheese is very slightly softer than say Comté, more like it’s cousin Gruyere. A myriad of rich meadow aromas are captured in this cheese, it is simply beautiful and eating it on the mountain-side where it comes from is just incredible.   Later that day we enjoy a perfectly made fondue by my cousin Janine, and I am loving the fact we have a shot of kirsch to help digest the cheese.  Black pepper is also flowing freely “cacio e pepe” style.  You shouldn’t drink water with a fondue, only wine or kirsch otherwise it will set in your tummy ;) or cinnamon tea with a lot of sugar.

100 metres up the mountain from the “fromagerie” there is “upper Cluse” which is called“La Cluse”, my great-great grandmother Marie Gétaz (1861-1944) gave birth to 12 children and in-between the births, (so my family say) even the day after (!) the apron would be put on and the cheese making resumed.  I am proud to come from a family of hardworking, passionate farmers.  It is a delight to see these sustainable family traditions with such respect for the land. In the autumn, as the first snow may fall, the cows come down the mountain to settle in the valleys for the winter.  My cousins tell me that there is a special dinner for the farmers in September who have lived on the mountain for the summer - 11 courses of delicious food, called the “Bénichon”.  Strictly speaking, it is more a “canton of Fribourg” tradition but since the “Pays d’Enhaut” overlaps on to the “Gruyere Valley”, which is Fribourg, they adopt the tradition too….  

The traditional Bénichon menu 

Blanchette Donnelly (née Rossier, previously Lumb) Grandmother 1916-1963 (47)

Léa Rossier Great Grandmother 1896-1919 (23)

Marie Gétaz Great-Great Grandmother 1861-1944 (83)