Gourmino: handcrafted cheeses from the Swiss Alps

04 July 2023

Gourmino is an affineur in the famous Swiss valley of Emmental: famous, of course, for its cheese!

Yet Gourmino is also a resilient survivor, and the last cheese-aging warehouse in Langnau municipality: The others have all succumbed to the commercial challenges which followed the liberalization of the Swiss dairy market. Yet Gourmino has not only endured; it has thrived.

Today we explore the peculiarities of Swiss cheesemaking, the biodiversity of the pastures, and more, Roland Sahli, a member of Gourmino’s Board of Management.

Slow Food: What happened to the other cheese warehouses in Langnau, and how did Gourmino survive?

Roland Sahli: All the other traditional cheese houses in Langnau closed within three years of the liberalization of the Swiss cheese market in the year 2000. However, Gourmino emerged as a beacon at the same time. We were founded in 2001 as a self-help organization by a number of local, independent cheesemakers, who sought a collective gateway to the market. This cooperative spirit continues to define Gourmino today, and distinguishes us as a special entity in the Swiss cheese industry.

Can you paint a picture of what life was like for a cheesemaker in the 1700s, when the practice first took hold in the region?

Yes! In the 1700s, cheesemaking here revolved around pastoralist practices. It was primarily a summer activity, serving as a means of preserving milk for the winter months. With the advent of agricultural intensification in the early 19th century, more grass was cultivated in the Emmental valley, leading to year-round cheese production. Many local dairy cooperatives are now celebrating their 200th anniversaries, i.e. 200 years of year-round cheese production. There has been a lot of technological advancement in the meanwhile, but the essence of cheesemaking, rooted in the connection between rearing animals, tending to pastures, and preserving milk: this has all remained fundamentally the same.

Cows grazing on highland pastures. Photo: Gourmino

What can you tell us about the pastures where the animals graze?

The Emmental region is sub-alpine, and has a relatively short growing season due to its altitude. This means the amount of arable land is limited; on the other hand, it’s an ideal region for grazing dairy animals. Indeed, grazing plays a central role in the management of these areas. The pastures are predominantly managed in an extensive manner, which has a positive impact on biodiversity.

What is the significance of using natural starter cultures for you?

Using in-house cultures allows for the transfer of bacterial cultures and nutrient-rich kettle whey from one cheese production to the next. This transmission of the local DNA impacts the taste and texture of the cheese during the ripening process, and is particularly evident after six months of aging. In the case of the Slow Food Presidium for Traditional Emmentaler there are specific bacterial strains present in the kettle whey, which are rarely found nowadays in regular Emmentaler AOP; these significantly influence the cheese’s development. This highlights the importance of natural starter cultures and their role in shaping the unique characteristics of a cheese.

Inspecting a cheese in the aging cellar. Photo: Gourmino

How has the debate animal welfare evolved in Switzerland in recent years?

Animal welfare has gained increasing importance in Switzerland over the past 30 years. Consumer demand for animal welfare has risen significantly. Grazing during the summer remains a central element, but cows also need outdoor access in winter. In the Emmental region, where smaller-scale production with an average of 15 to 40 cows per farm is prevalent, the focus is on maintaining traditional practices that differ enormously from factory farming. Being able to communicating these values to conscious consumers and ensuring there is a sufficient supply of skilled workers in cheese dairies: these are areas for continuous improvement.

You say only the “best” cheeses are suitable for long aging. How do you determine which cheeses are best?

The selection of cheeses for longer aging involves a combination of empirical data from production control parameters and sensory assessments. As part of Gourmino’s cooperative structure, the cheesemakers share production reports and their personal impressions when handing over the cheeses to us, the affineurs. The texture and flavor development of the cheese plays a vital role in the selection process. At this stage, the desired flavor profile is not yet fully pronounced, as the cheeses require sufficient time in the ripening facility to develop the desired aroma. The expertise of the affineurs in caring for the cheeses is crucial in this regard.

What challenges do you face as affineurs? How do you tackle them?

Gourmino’s focus on long-matured cheese specialties, available at specialty stores, presents challenges that require a sustainable supply of high-quality milk from local artisanal cheesemakers. Without access to young cheese made with high-quality raw milk, the refinement process for long-matured cheese is compromised. Ensuring the preservation of artisanal cheesemaking know-how is another central challenge. Addressing these challenges means ensuring there are apprenticeships available, and providing young cheesemakers with the opportunity to establish their own dairies.

Cheesemakers of the present and future generations together at Gourmino

Do you participate in any educational initiatives for these young cheesemakers?

Out of the 13 dairies that Gourmino works with, six regularly offer apprenticeships: these initiatives are the cornerstone of the economic and social sustainability of the artisanal cheese industry. In recent years, there has been an increase in demand for these apprenticeships, highlighting the ongoing interest in the craft. After acquiring professional experience and undergoing further training, young cheesemakers are supported in the process of setting up their own dairies. This ensures a reliable supply of high-quality cheese for refinement, and enables Gourmino to maintain its commitment to quality!

What does the Cheese festival mean to you?

The Cheese event serves as an important platform for Gourmino to connect with people from all over the world. Through participation in Cheese, we have had the opportunity to introduce important cheeses like Traditional Emmentaler and Mountain Pasture Sbrinz (both Slow Food Presidia), to a much wider audience. In general, the event is a valuable occasion for international outreach, and helps expand the ever-growing network of conscious consumers who care about quality cheese, reinforcing the work of those that make it.

You can come and meet the affineurs of Gourmino—and taste their cheeses for yourself!—at Cheese 2023 in the Affineur Alley. This can be found, as always, in Piazza Roma, right across from the train station.

by Jack Coulton, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

Cover photo kindly lent by Gourmino.

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