Friend and cheesemaker Christian Nobel, writes about his family’s recent trip from Australia to visit relatives in Switzerland.
The mountain path
We start at the valley bottom very early in the morning. The weather forecast is great and although there is no indication yet of the rising sun, the mountains are starting to appear as the darkness disappears. After a strenuous passage through a dense pine forest, we continue up a rocky path that has never seen a car or truck before.
These alpine trails are only for hikers or one or two wild alpine farmers riding motor bikes, which have been specifically adjusted for crazy and steep paths. Up in these high alpine areas, one either walks, or if available, transports goods by aerial ropeway or even by helicopter.
After a while, we reach a level where pine trees do not grow due to the altitude. We can smell the fresh green grass while hiking up a steep hill. As the sun starts to rise, more and more cow bells can be heard everywhere.
Arriving at the hut, the alpine farmer, who is also the cheesemaker, offers us some rustic bread, a coffee and some hobelkaese* – a hard grating alpine cheese. What a combination! We also had some beer with the hobelkaese but thought a chilled German riesling would really taste good with it. Everything in the hut smells like fire (the fire they use to heat up the milk). *Shaved cheese.
The cheese making
In June, the farmer walks up to the hut and spends all summer there, so the cows can feed on the delicious alpine grass on the steep slopes. Every day, the farmer and his son milk their few cows and turn the milk into two alpine cheeses of about eight kilograms.
After milking the cows in the early morning hours, the cheese maker heats up the milk to only 28 degrees, then adds fresh cultures and later on rennet at 31 degrees. He cuts the cheese by hand and then slowly heats it to about 46 degrees before taking it out of the small vat by hand with a cloth. (See actual process here.)
Just cutting, collecting, chopping and carrying the firewood to the alpine fromagerie is a lot of work. All milk is heated on a small in-house fire, and the smell of the whole hut, all the clothes and even the fresh cheese reflects that.
Once the cheese is taken out of the vat, the cheesemaker puts it into a small “Jaerb” (a basic Swiss alpine style hoop), and then presses it by hand before subjecting it to a simple pressure mechanism – the main weight is a hanging stone! After 24 hours of drainage on the press, he puts the cheese in a salt brine before maturation.
The production in a lot of alpine factories is often so small, that most of the cheese is eaten by hikers or by the cheesemaker. If you tasted this in the hut, you would understand immediately. Any cheeses left at the end of September, are carried into the valley by aerial ropeway. What an effort for 16 kilograms of cheese per day, made with passion!
The remote position of most alpine huts is one reason why Switzerland has a strong tradition in making hard cheese. Because cheese could not be transported immediately after production, the cheesemakers had to focus on cheese that had a long shelf life and could survive the tough journey down into the valleys.
Visiting Alpine cheesemakers, I am always impressed and feel very passionate about what they do! And while visiting, always eat a bit more cheese than normally…