STORY: Making cheese in the Swiss Alps

10 November 2015

by Carmen Bateson

The sound of a European summer is the symphony of bells individually forged out of bronze, tin and copper.  It is made by the movement of countless herds of animals sporting often enormous bells or clarines around their necks.  Whether cow, goat or sheep, this sound frequently communicates alpage, the custom of taking one’s herd into the mountains – public lands – to graze on high altitude summer pastures, rich in diversity.  This is not a custom we have in Australia, however, during our Australian winter I profited from a period between jobs to explore Swiss, French and Italian cheese rooms and, in particular, this custom of transhumance, observing the progression of the herd slowly ascending the mountain in search of fresh pasture, then descending swiftly at the beginning of autumn returning to the valley, to the farm.

Meanwhile in the valleys, farmers profit from the summer period without animals, allowing them to cut hay as frequently as two, three or four times during the season.  For me, this is a grand testament to the fertility of the European landscape, however, it also tells of the necessity to cut a sufficient quantity of hay and lucerne to make it through the winter months when the herd is shedded.

Frequently, farmers are motivated to make alpage to enable them to cut hay, but others do it due to an insufficient quantity of land to manage a herd all year.  I even crossed paths with a cow herder whose boss used alpage as an opportunity to take a holiday.  In contrast, there are those who continue alpage for the pleasure of guarding the seasonal and traditional, valuing the diversity of the mountain landscape, as many as 20 species in one square meter.  It also has to be said that alpage provides a means of managing the terrain often inaccessible by any means other than on foot, and indeed it’s the herd that is most capable of traversing these mountain landscapes.

Much of my time was spent in the Swiss Alps near the French and Italian borders on a large alpage of mostly Herens cows, a breed found in the French Savoie, Italian Valle d’Aosta and the Vallais in Switzerland.  Herens is a rustic, stocky breed, resembling a meat cow, capable of traversing mountain landscapes and producing a small yet rich quantity of milk – while surveying pages of individual cows’ milk tests, I observed some with fat levels typical of sheep! 

Interestingly, this breed is no longer bred for milk production as it is prized for its inclination for combat. Seasonally, large competitions are organised for the cows to make battle and whilst you may not find this aspect of the culture enjoyable, it has without doubt maintained this breed of cow and contributed to its increased population.

The herd I was with, totalling 190 cows – with just over half in milk production, represents 20 different local owners; however, the alpage is the responsibility of one family, whose four children contribute to the immense amount of work required to successfully manage an alpage. This season marks the third year of their six year lease of the alpage and, like any other lease agreement, the family pays the local government for use of the land, over 4000 acres in total, at an altitude starting at 1500m and finishing at 2500m.

The function of an alpage is simple in theory....owners pay the alpage operator to take their animals up the mountain; however, if they are producing milk, it is purchased by the alpage operator at a cost of 1.50 euro/litre, an amount partly subsidised from the Chamber of Agriculture.  At the beginning of the season the milk of each individual cow is weighed daily to establish the litreage, then weekly as the season progresses and the quantity of milk decreases.  The alpage operator is responsible for animal health, milking, fabrication and sale of cheese and profits are returned to him; or alternatively, staff are paid to milk and move the herd, and a cheese maker in production and affinage.

Of course, at the beginning of the season when the quantity of milk is at its peak, the cheese maker is obliged to make cheese twice daily, starting his day at 4am and finishing his final turn at 11pm.  Two fabrications require long hours but force an efficiency in one’s practice, alongside a systematic and consistent approach...qualities frequently observed in cheese makers who excel at their craft.  This habitual rhythm, in a very minimalist cheese room, produced the AOC protected Raclette, in addition to a small tomme not dissimilar to Reblochon, and a ricotta, locally referred to as Serac.  The latter produced complex flavours with length not often associated with ricotta we see in Australia, and presumably it was the mountain landscape and its diversity that is capable of producing such an interesting palate.

The raw milk tomme was a small, flat disc, just over half a kilo, typically with a rose/orange rind, suggesting the presence of nativeBreviand frequently a fine white mould, despite no addition of these during production.  The cheese was lightly pressed under the weight of another cheese, and produced a supple texture and classic barnyard, bouillon palate. 

The raw milk Raclette, hooped under whey and pressed for 20 hours, is treasured in the region and as its production is guarded by the AOC, representatives of which make three visits during the season, observing, tapping, sampling, bending and smelling approximately a quarter of the production, finally collecting samples for grading and micro testing.  At the end of the season the cheese is graded out of 20 and, whilst 19.50 indicates that they are producing a great product, for the cheese maker and alpage operators they are more interested in producing a cheese that they value and their consumers enjoy and regularly consume. What is also interesting to observe during discussion with the cheese maker and alpage operators is that, despite their different roles in the production, they all understand that the cheese is an outcome of the landscape, the breed of cow, the herdsmen, the cheese maker and the natural caves used to mature the cheese at an altitude of between 1500m and 2000m.

         

All of the cheese is sold locally, a feature typical of farmhouse production in Europe.  This is in stark contrast to the Australian farmhouse production where we are frequently reliant on interstate sales.  This represents a cultural difference, with Australians consuming less cheese, a function of cost, with European farmhouse cheese being available at a lower price, but also population density in Europe being much greater.

Of course, this is just one example of the function of mountain cheese production.  Regardless, alpage remains unquestionably fascinating, an enduring tradition that is capable of producing some of the most interesting and precious cheeses available and frequently using techniques unchanged for countless lifetimes of fromagieres.  And whilst I value artisan production for its use of non-automated techniques, whilst I adore farmhouse production for its dedication to one’s herd and handmade techniques, I have to admit that for me alpage is the pinnacle of cheese making for its observance of tradition in regards to season, landscape, herd and fabrication.

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