Here in the little village of Gruyères in western Switzerland, the inhabitants have preserved ancient cheesemaking traditions passed down from generation to generation.
Where does the name Gruyère come from?
Legend has it that Gruyère comes from “Gruerius,” captain of the sixth legion of Vandals who decided to settle in this region in the year 436. History says there was even an Gruerius I and II, to whom the king of Burgundy granted the lands of Gruyère in 510. According to the nineteenth-century historian Hisely, however, it seems that the name Gruyère comes from the “Grand-gruyer” or “forest warden” who had jurisdiction over lakes and forests and was in charge of punishing offences. The Grand-gruyer administered a whole region called the “gruerie,” where he took possession of the hill to build his house.
The name Gruyère as applied to cheese appeared as “Gruière” in 1655, from the district of the Fribourg canton where it is produced.
Some points to clarify…
Before going into the history of the cheese, we should point out a few things:
- the cheese is spelled “Gruyère,” but the town is spelled “Gruyères”
- Gruyère now has its own protected designation of origin (AOC) which is written with a capital letter
- formerly Gruyère was described as a cheese with holes, though this led to too much confusion with Emmenthal
Cheese has been produced in this Pre-Alps region since the time of the Celts and Romans, though no one thought to give it a specific name. According to legend, Emperor Antonin the Pious died from indigestion after eating too much of this cheese in AD 161. It was not until the 12th century that the first written mentions of cheese production appear. Guillaume, the first count of Gruyère, founded the Cluniac priory of Rougemont with his nephew, Canon Ulrich. Guillaume promised Ulrich, in a charter in 1115, certain benefices, and thus the economic cycle began. Farmers from the Gruyères region were obliged to provide a living to the priory through a tax paid in cheese; the Abbey then resold the cheese to obtain its revenues. To ensure regular production and consistent quantities, the Abbey provided the most up-to-date equipment for the cheese production: kettles, strainers, molds… Thus Gruyère production rapidly attained high quality and by 1249 a whole economy centered around cheese had been established. In October 1312, the sons of Rodolphe de Gruyère freed their subjects living in Gessenay from the obligations of the 1115 charter, allowing them to sell surplus cheese themselves. In 1342 a tariff was imposed on butter and cheese.
On July 2, 1992 a Gruyère charter came into effect, defining the area in which true Gruyère can be produced (the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura, as well as certain districts of the canton of Bern.)
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