The Alpine Ibex walk their young ones through a field of cows, unperturbed and dispersed on an abrupt slope. The hill darkens quickly in time with the setting sun. It’s late afternoon at the top of the ‘Cold Water Valley’, deep in the Pays d’en haut, in Switzerland, in the Vaud canton, at an altitude of about 1,900 metres. The valley leads towards the village of Etivaz. The alpine hut, with its gently sloping corrugated roof, was built to withstand avalanches. A short distance away, in a pen, pigs wait for their daily portion of whey.
<- A stunning view of the sky and valley. It’s late afternoon and the Alpine ibex are here for their daily visit.
Inside, the production workshop has been blackened with soot. It is compulsory to make Etivaz (Gruyère’s cousin) in copper kettles which are heated by a log fire. The workshop opens up directly into the kitchen.
<- In the workshop submerged in smoke, the sunlight sneaks into the room through two tiny openings.
On the roof, above the work space, imposing cowbells (which are used when taking the cows up to the summer pastures and bringing them back down again) display the names of each member of the family. Comfort is minimal: there is no electricity or hot water, just a generator for the milking room. A bit further down, in the main part of the farm, two stables hold 37 Simmental cows, which are reddish-brown in colour and the guest room is just above one of them!
<- The cows are milked twice a day. Their milk is processed in the morning.
Eric and Sophie Gutknecht spend 6 weeks a year in the alpine hut, with their two year old son Robin, who already knows everything there is to know about the production of Etivaz. Next year, as can be seen from his mum’s tummy, he will be gaining a little brother or sister. Certain members of the family work with the couple and this season, Eric’s sister, Dorothée, and her husband Sébastien, mechanic by trade, will be giving them a hand. The couple own 3 alpine huts, where they stay consecutively, as they go up to mountain pastures. This one is the highest. The highest point of the mountain pasture measures 2,548m and is the peak of the Pays d’en Haut.
<- Eric, Sophie and Robin behind the copper kettle, which is heated by a log fire and used to make Etivaz.
Eric and Sophie, both 30, are part of a young generation of 70 Etivaz producers and spend 110 days a year in high mountain pasture. They have a well organised work schedule: two weeks in the lowest alpine hunt (1,530m), then two and a half weeks in the next (1,715m) and 6 weeks at the summit. Before going descending the mountain again, 10 days are spent in the alpine hut half way down and then another three weeks in the lowest hut. Then, it’s back to Moulin, near Château d’Œx, the couple’s ‘base camp’. All of the alpine huts are at least 200 years old, and have been extended and done up according to what work needed doing and how much money the couple had at the time.
<- Eric keeps a close watch on the kettle as it heats up.
The season for high mountain pasture, authorised for this prestigious AOC cheese, is from 10th May until 10th October, at a height of at least 1000m. With this time schedule, they are able to make 210 rounds of cheese (25kg each on average, 17kg the smallest, up to 36kg for the biggest). In winter, the milk is provided by the dairy in Moulin, which makes organic Gruyère.
<- Eric and his sister, Dorothée. Cheese production with the Gutcknechts is a family affair.
Eric and Sophie began in 2004, by purchasing mountain pastures. Etivaz has always been in their lives. They met at school and spent their summers in the mountains, with friends and family. Seeing snow at least once a month, even at the height of summer, doesn’t surprise them anymore. After training in cabinet making, little by little, Eric turned towards cheese. He considers himself to be a cheesemaker, ‘but only for two hours a day. I am also a carpenter, dairy farmer and mechanic. Every day is different. There are always things to be getting on with. Our passion is the mountains.’
<- Sophie oversees the heating of the milk. Today, the kettle contains 420l of milk, enough to make two wheels.
They only make the cheese once a day, in the morning, after going to get the cows at around 6.30am, guided by the bells. The milk from the night milking is kept at a temperature of around 15°c. In the workshop, the fire crackles and the flames caress the copper kettle. ‘There’s a lot of smoke today’, comments Sophie. At 7 o’clock in the morning, a beam of sunlight shines through the window and makes the smoke dance in the workshop.
<- La traite a eu lieu avant que le soleil ne franchisse la crête rocheuse qui surplombe le chalet.
The copper kettle is heated to hold the milk at 32°c, which is the temperature needed to coagulate the milk (with rennet). The kettle is slid off the fire and closed for 40 minutes, which is the time needed for the rennet to ‘take’, and leaves just enough time to have breakfast. They taste the cream skimmed off the surface of the milk. What sublime finesse and subtlety…
<- The kettle contains milk from the night before, and from the morning milking.
Back to the workshop for the cutting of the curd: the curd is cut into tiny pieces, the size of a grain of wheat. Everything is then mixed for 45 minutes.
<- The tool used by Eric to cut the curd resembles a lyre.
And now for the most spectacular moment of the day: separating the curds from the whey. The cheesemaker plunges his arms into the liquid, hotter than 50°c in temperature, and gathers the curd in a cheesecloth, twice, before carrying the dripping, steaming sack to the moulds. 420l of milk will make two whole cheeses (at the start of the season, high lactation increases production to 3 a day), which are pressed for 23 hours.
<- Dorothée helps her brother Eric.
The cheeses are kept here for a maximum of 3 days, before being taken to the cave d’affinage in Etivaz, the only one permitted in the production of this AOC cheese. AOC regulations also stipulate at least 5 months of ageing. The cheesemakers are allowed to keep 10% of total production, for their own use, but the rest belongs to the cooperative. ‘The weigh-in takes place at the beginning of November, and that’s when we can take our 10% share’ explains Eric. ‘We then go and get our cheese as and when we need it.’
<- Putting the cheese into the moulds.
Eric is not a fan of maturing the cheese for too long, and prefers subtlety to strong flavours. ‘I like to let the exceptional richness of the mountain plants (alpine primroses, anemone, edelweiss, and gentians) speak for themselves. I prefer my cheese after about 7 or 8 months, when it’s quite soft’. We taste it and a burst of flavours invade the palate…
Meet the young couple who produce one of the most artisan swiss cheeses, Etivaz, only in summer, at an altitude of more than 2000 metres.