Photographers' Blog

‘Till the cows come home

Gruyeres, western Switzerland

By Denis Balibouse

In summer, some go to the seaside or countryside, visit a new city or country, but some choose to live a different way. The Murith family will not have a day off: they will work 15 hours a day, seven days a week from mid-May to mid-October.

I’ve known the Muriths for more than 10 years. Last December I called them to discuss the idea that I would photograph them over the 2013 summer. We met for lunch and over a meal I found out that Jacques, who is turning 65 (the official retirement age in Switzerland) was in the process of handing down his farm and its cheese-making business to the sixth generation: his 23-year-old son Alexandre. I was intrigued by this news, as I’ve been thinking a lot about agriculture in Switzerland, and how it faces a somewhat uncertain future, partly because the country is surrounded by EU nations with lower production and land costs, making it a tough way to earn a living. Despite this, exports have grown over the last 10 years and production has focused on quality.

I was struck by the intense concentration required during the six hour process. Because they’re working with what is essentially a living thing, every second counts: one minute too long and the cheese may be unsuitable for maturation, ruining hours of hard work. Every element, such as the temperature of the milk in the morning and the weather add a different combination of factors. Jacques’ senses were on alert: touch, sight, smell and taste especially. All the knowledge of the craftsman came in to play as he made the cheese. It’s not something you can learn in a book.

Jacques never actually studied cheese-making — he learned on the job. Each wheel of cheese weighs between 25 to 40 kilograms (55 to 88 lbs). Depending on the time of year one or two wheels can be produced per day. It takes a minimum of six months to mature but can last as long as 18 months depending on the quality required. The Murith family produce around 200 wheels each year from the unpasteurized milk from their herd of cows. It is not exported but can be bought directly from them.

INDUSTRY FACTBOX

• 35 % of the milk produced in Switzerland in 2012 was transformed into 450 different types of cheese, only 4.58% of which was exported
• Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants ate 21.4 kg of cheese per capita in 2011, which is almost twice as much as the chocolate consumed
• 11 types of cheese are protected by a controlled denomination of origin (AOC) label. Gruyère cheese is gaining in popularity, compared to Emmenthal (commonly known as Swiss) cheese
• In 2012 exports increased by 3.7 % compared to 2011 figures and have increased every year since the start of liberalization of export duties with EU countries in 2005
• 70.4 % of Switzerland’s exported cheese was sent to neighboring countries (Germany, France and Italy)
• Some 6000 jobs depend directly on the Gruyère industry.

Angels of Parmesan

By Stefano Rellandini

It all started one night as I looked for some Parmesan cheese to add to my pasta at home. I wondered what the situation was two weeks after an earthquake struck the area of Emilia, the home of Parmesan cheese. After dinner I searched online for some news on the subject and found a lovely story about a team of firefighters who went to the affected areas to help recover the damaged cheese.

Around Finale Emilia, the epicenter of the latest earthquake, there are many factories producing Parmesan which, alongside agriculture, is the core business of the region.

When I arrived at the factory I saw that the situation remained difficult for the owner as all the cheese lay on the ground or had collapsed on the counter. Firefighters were constantly working to remove the cheese. Looking around the warehouse I wondered why the farmers had waited for the special team of firefighters to remove the cheese and not used local volunteers instead.