In 2018, we Adopted an Alp, and the Alp we chose was Steiners Hohberg, near Fribourg in central Switzerland.
During the summer and autumn of 2018, we provided ongoing updates on our Alp, as well as educating our customers on the importance of transhumance for the Swiss communities, but also the Alps themselves.
Our efforts were rewarded by being picked to go on a Swiss journey to explore the country. This morning, 14th June, the exploration began, as we landed in Zürich airport (one of the coolest designed airports I've travelled to).
Straight from the airport we travelled for 2 h to the canton of Fribourg, above the village of Plaffeien, to our Adopted Alp Steiners Hohberg. Again, this year, 2019, we will be adopting Steiners Hohberg.
As we stepped out of the car, it is hard to impress to you, on the magnificent scale and beauty of the place. On a small raised plateau in the middle of two mountains there sits the cheesemaking facility, and around that on the steep slopes are the 8 dairy chalets which provide all the milk for the cheese making. These dairies form a cooperative, which is headed by Christian Stücki.
Strolling down the steep driveway into the facility and restaurant, we were greeted by Christian (coop head), and father Ruoti and son Fabian - cheesemakers. We also noticed the terracing that was occurring on the hillsides (see picture). Apparently the cows actually terraform the land as they follow each other walking along the contours. This natural terracing then helps to save the hill from erosion by providing a solid ground structure.
Ruoti (the elder of the cheesemakers) introduced himself as not a cheesemaker at all, rather a retired car mechanic, but his son, Fabian, had interned in the valley making Gruyère, and was now the head cheesemaker, who would be uncharge of making cheese but also training his father. But you could tell the passion, knowledge and enthusiasm which they both contained, barely bubbling beneath the surface.
They both led us into the cheesemaking facility, where there were some of the days' Vacherin Fribourgeois and Alpkäse still in the facility, ready to be moved to the ageing caves in the basement. Fabian showed us the copper, water jacketed vessels for setting and cutting the curd, and the wood-fired steam generator to heat the copper vessels.
From a usual delivery of milk (arriving at 6.15 am), Fabian would be able to make approx 16 Alpkäse and 12 Vacherin Frobourgeois, as well as a smaller format (2 kg) cheese. They would also use the whey to make a fresh cheese, a bit like a drained ricotta.
The Vacherin is more moist than the Alpkäse, partly due to the fact the curds are held at 32°C, as opposed to 53°C for 15 mins, after cutting. They are also salted for a lot less time than the Alpkase: they are bathed in a brine solution and then brushed daily. The salt/water/microbial flora mix (which is never changed!) helps to dehydrate the cheese. The Vacherinis brined for 5 hours, but the Alpkase for 24 hours!
The cheese is then moved onto wooden boards and brushed each day, as they age. The cave is divided into 2 sections, one a more humid section where the cheese stays for a month, and the second a less humid section where the cheeses stay for the remainder of the time.
The wooden boards (which again, are never washed!) reflect the humidity of each section, one set being quite moist, the other being bone dry.
After a visit to the cellars, it was on to the cheese tasting, with Alpkase from 2018 and the ricotta-type cheese, which is apparently best served with sugar to sweeten the milky goodness, and best eaten at breakfast!
It was 5 pm but it still tasted great!
As with many cheesemakers, they gave the whey that they couldn't use to their pigs, which they kept on sites and then sold off for the season.