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The Artists of Gruyère

Walking in an Alpine valley in Switzerland, we came upon a small dairy farm. Black-and-white cows grazed in lush green fields. Near a whitewashed barnlike building, a 12-year-old boy in knee-high rubber boots scrubbed the cows’ drinking trough, a great hollowed-out log. With him was a tiny girl, not yet 2 years old, also in rubber boots. She had messy honey-colored curls and pink cheeks. Her name was Anna Claudia.

A handsome, burly man came out of the building and greeted us in French. Another man emerged from a lower door, toting an enormous wheel of cheese. These men, it turned out, made an artisanal cheese called Etivaz. They were finished for the day, but invited us back to observe the process.

For most people, Swiss cheese implies a mild, waxy, part skim-milk cheese with holes, such as Jarlsberg or Emmenthaler. In this corner of French-speaking Switzerland, not far from the town of Gruyère, the cheeses are quite varied, from mild, fresh tommes that resemble un-aged Brie, to sharp, deeply flavorful, carefully aged cow’s-milk cheeses with names like Roubloz, Etivaz, Frommage du Valais.

Etivaz is what Gruyère once was, before the name became generic for commercially made mild white cheeses throughout the world. Our cheesemaker was one of 73 artisans in an Etivaz cooperative.

We returned to the farm on a crisp morning in late summer and were ushered into the cheese room, where past centuries mingled with the present. An enormous 1,100-liter copper vat hung over a snapping wood fire. In the vat was fresh, unpasteurized milk that, with rennet and heat, had become white curds in pale yellow whey. A paddle, driven by a car battery, stirred the curds. In one corner was a wooden table where cheese molds waited. Yesterday’s wheels, each about 25 kilos, rested on round wooden footed trays. Vases of wildflowers sat in the windows. Flies and bits of ash drifted in shafts of smoky light. Dogs lounged by the fire. Anna Claudia sat on the stairs to a loft and presented her hand to us like a tiny queen.

The curds and whey would cook until they reached 57 degrees C, around 40 minutes. During this time, Anna Claudia insisted on showing us the cows: The back door of the cheese room opened directly into the barn, where the ruminating creatures stood in placid rows awaiting release into the fields.

When the contents of the cauldron reached the desired temperature, the cheesemaker skimmed bits of ash off the surface and called in his assistant. Together the men removed the stirring apparatus and dragged the cauldron to the center of the room (it was mounted on runners to a steel beam overhead). Cheesecloth was fastened on a metal support and dragged through the vat, netting a load of curds. Once drained, the curds were transferred, cheesecloth and all, into a ring mold, then wrapped and covered. Then old-fashioned iron presses were lowered onto the molds.

We were handed lumps of curds; they tasted like slightly sour warm milk and squeaked against the teeth — nothing delicious about them.

Two more molds were filled and pressed. (In peak season, when cows give a lot of milk, these men make 100 kilos of cheese a day, four wheels.) Within minutes, the pressure on the cheese was released, and the wheels were unwrapped and turned for the first time. They would be turned six times in the next 24 hours.

The cheesemaker took yesterday’s cheese to a small subterranean room with rock walls and thick pine beams. The day-old cheese was rubbed with salt and set on pine boards — red pine, to be exact, which grows on the village side of the mountain where, said the cheesemaker, “The sun shines less and the girls don’t marry.” The pine, he said, adds color and flavor to the cheese. After a bath in salt, the wheels will sit in this room for a week or so, until they go to the Etivaz cooperatives’ climate-controlled cave for six months.

When the cheesemaking was finished for the day, Anna Claudia’s mother invited us into the living quarters: Another door in the cheese room opened directly into this spotless, tidy chamber with a bank of beds along one wall and a rustic table along the windows opposite.

First, we ladled cream onto plates with intricately carved wooden spoons, each inscribed with a family member’s name (some had had successive owners). We ate the cream with crisp swirls of meringue. Our blood slowed. We grew sleepy and happy. Through the windows, the grass was shiny green, the sky blue; cows clanked their bells. We sliced some cheese. The rind was a rich light brown, with a residual crosshatching left from the cheesecloth. The cheese itself was salty and creamy and deliciously complex — a far, far cry from the squeaky, bland curds. In this smooth, rich cheese, you could taste that place, the grass and smoke, the tang of pine, and the warmth of a sunny summer day.

Etivaz and many other artisanal cheeses are not imported, because they are made with unpasteurized milk. The Raclette cheese available at Trader Joe’s is made in the Auvergne mountains of France and gives a good idea of the strength and creaminess of Swiss mountain cheeses at an affordable price. Artisanal Gruyères, Raclette and Reblochon are occasionally available at the La Brea Bakery cheese counter, at $18 to $24 per pound; 624 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 939-6813.