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Hard Core Swiss Vacherin Cheese

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Follow me as I wake up in the wee hours of the morning to see Swiss armailli make a unique cheese in a small chalet up the Gruyere Alps.

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The Gruyère is that lovely part of the Swiss Alps overlooking Lake Geneva famous for the eponymous cheese. The other big cheese in the Gruyère is called Vacherin [vah-shuh-rin], a softer, younger but altogether stronger cheese made from the same milk. The best vacherin is made between June and August when the cows go up the mountain to graze in Alpine pastures. During those magic three months, the cows produce an astonishing milk from their diet of alpine wildflowers. The people who live with the cows and make the cheese in wooden chalets are known as armailli [ar-mah-yee], half cowboys, half cheesemakers and a hundred percent gruyériens. These are living heroes for the true lover of cheese, they are the artisans who labor day and night to milk the milk of the gods and transform it into the best cheese on earth. Follow me as I wake up in the wee hours of the morning to see these exceptional men at work.

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I left home at 5 AM to drive up the mountains into gorgeous Gruyère as the sun rises. I pass the Valsainte, the charterhouse monastery founded in 1295 and the only charterhouse remaining in Switzerland. These are real, hard-core catholic monks who live in tiny houses and never speak one word - that's the rule. The cheesemaking chalet is up from the monastery on a private road.

Fortunately it has not rained for a couple days and we manage to drive up on the steep dirt road that leads up the Valsainte alpages. On the way up we pass three chalets, but this is late August and the armaillis have climbed up to the highest pasture on the search for fresh grass to turn into foodie futter. Alpine cheesemaking is a nomadic occupation as the cows quickly raze alpine pastures to the ground and need to move to new land. Despite their simplicity, the milking and cheesemaking equipment must be located close to the cows, and if you look at Swiss mountains, you will always see a string of such chalets with one dirt track connecting them.

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Finally at 1433m (4700') altitude I reach La Carra, the highest chalet d'alpage on the Hautachia [otah shiah] alpage. Roof and exterior walls are covered with bardeaux, little boards of pine the size of your hand nailed in a scale pattern to protect the chalet from rain, wind and snow.

My friend François Rémy, a retired local cheesemaker, kindly introduced me to his pal Yvan Brodard, a local farmer and cheesemaker with 100 cows in the Valsainte valley. Yvan Brodard's family has been milking this mountain for nearly a century. The meadows and chalets all belong to the monastery and they've been renting the four chalets and meadows to the Brodard for 4 generations. Yvan's son is 37 years old and is taking over the farm.

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Yvan has collected the milk he milked from his 40 cows the night before and in the morning in a 600 liters (130 gallons) cauldron. He adds rennet diluted in some water to make the milk curdle. This will take the better part of an hour.

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The giant cauldron is moved on the wood fire.

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like in all traditional Swiss chalets d'alpage, there is an open hearth and soon smoke fills the room, slowly escaping from a hole high up on the vaulted ceiling. After a few seconds, my eyes ache and I start coughing. I run to the door to get some air and barely hear Can you please shut the door? I look back, puzzled. Yvan insists patiently: We need the heat for the cheese.

While the milk is curdling, the cheesemakers move into the kitchen for their breakfast. I take advantage of this to shoot two interactive panoramas - don't miss them!

Click for 360° interactive panorama Interactive 360° panorama #1
 See the whole chalet from floor to ceiling. Use your mouse to discover what's hanging from the ceiling. See the milk cauldron on the wood fire and the door to the stables just opposite - quite an atmospheric picture, you must agree.

Click for 360° interactive panorama Interactive 360° panorama #2
 Fearlessly, I enter the stables where the cows are resting after a night spent grazing the mountain meadows. Cows are friendly animals, but huge ones, and they produce two other liquids besides milk and these are not edible. As I set up my tripod in the middle of the stable an avalanche of cowshit on my tripod. I take no heed and continue shooting my second panorama. Have you noticed how the cow closest to the door wags her tail? Lovely.

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While I'm working with my cameras, I hear the armaillis talking about other cheesemakers, the weather, family. Then the youngest goes Is he coming or not?. I rush to the kitchen and we all sit down for an early-bird special, the armailli's breakfast. Fresh whey cheese, hot milk, Gruyère, coffee and bread. We cut things right on the table and exchange jokes. I give my camera to the man of the house and ask him to snap a picture. The camera is still on manual and the picture is a bit dark, but what a memorable breakfast!

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The milk has now turned into one solid block as the protein coagulated. Yvan now needs to cut the curds into tiny grains.

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Using his tranche-caillé, a sort of giant harp, he slowly cuts down the curds like a boatsman paddling on a quiet canal, with the same precise movement of those gestures one has repeated a thousand times.

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Yvan rests the tranche-caillé and starts pushing the cauldron back on the fire. To make a vacherin, now I need to increase the milk temperature to 35°C, he says.

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There are some little black patches on the milk. Yvan sees me looking and explains These are little bits of ashes that fly around the chalet. They are not toxic in the least, but would ruin the appearance of the cheese. Fortunately the ash will come to the surface and concentrate on the milk fat. So I just remove them until the curds are perfectly clean, he says, skimming the surface.

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Yvan grabs the giant milk cauldron, hanging from its post, and moves it to the side. places a cauldron of water on the fire to make hot water for the cleaning.

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When making cheese, cleanliness is not optional. Every piece of equipment that is contact with the milk, whey and cheese just has to be clean. There is no other choice - if you don't do it your cheese will rot and people will die. And being in a remote chalet 5000' up the Swiss Alps with no running water, telephone or electricity is no excuse. So they get down to it and use the hot water to clean the milking machines, with steam clouds filling the kitchen, while a ray of sun falls on the dripping water.

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The cleaning continues with the wooden cheese forms, faster now as the curds are ready.

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Time to fish the curdles out of the whey. Yvan is joined by his friend Clément Tornare, a retired local farmer who helps him out. Working in nearly complete silence, they grab a large piece of cheesecloth and cast it into the cauldron like a net.

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Yvan reaches in the depths of the cauldron, then slowly pulls the cheesecloth out. It has turned heavy with the curds.

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Although this is a very artisanal operation, these guys have been around long enough to know how to spare their backs. Yvan ties the cheese cloth to a hook hanging from a beam...

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