Today, we got the full Alp experience. From a white knuckle car ride up and down a mountain ’road’, to watching the family flip cheese, to dodging cow pats in the milking parlour, to standing in the melting snow of a true Alpine meadow.
The Alp we visited today was RuosAlp, a family run dairy and cheesemaking facility where they make Alpkase and small format goat cheese.
Max and Monica are the mum and dad, who have the most positive and energetic disposition, their daughter Nina is in love with the alpine lifestyle and the herd, and the 12 year old Remo zooms around on his bike herding cows, repairing the roof - and is indispensable the operation. At 12.
This may seem obvious, but Alps are high. So far on the trip we’ve been mostly in the foothills. Now we entered the real Alps (Bernese Alps). The temperature drops, the snow still lingers (in June) and the roads/tracks get narrow with steep drop offs.
At some point the old tarmac road turns into gravel, which turns into dirt. We didn’t get as far as where it turned into grass.
But no matter how ‘spectacular’ the drive up or down was, the broad smiles and warm welcome from the family made the world seem better, less shaky and smaller again.
They shared their lunch of Aplkase, Alp butter, Alp yoghurt, homemade bread and charcuterie, minestrone soup (and glasses of raw milk) and talked about their lives on the alp, with the herds and making the cheese.
After sharing the first goat cheese/geisskase of the year (firm yet flexible, and mild with hints of goat). Everyone lept into action, as it was cheese turning time. The mornings milk had already been turned into cheese, and placed in moulds, and then pressed. To ensure an equal curd structure and drainage, cheese are best flipped during pressing (and ageing). As you can see it takes a family to flip the cheese, which occurred in their cheesemaking room. A large steel-jacketed vat none corner for Alpkase, a smaller vat in the other corner for the goat cheese.
After a few action packed minutes, Max then took us to the first of his again caves, just outside from the kitchen. There were a number of this year's Alpkase, and this year's Geisskase (goat).
In the cave, they also kept their brine bath, and brushing machine. The Alpkase are placed in brine for 4 hours, and then placed on the shelves, where they start to dry and age. The wheels are flipped everyday, and brushed every so often, by a machine which looks like an automatic shoe-shiner.
One of the unique characteristics of the Alpkase from Ruos Alp, is that the Alpkase they make is a lot softer than most Alpkase. The reason is that they leave their cheeses up in the Alp to age over winter. When the snow covers the Alp, and covers the dairy and caves in 2 metres of snow, the temperature drops to, and stays at, a constant 4 C — much lower than the usual 12-15C that you’d find in a regular wcave. The result is that ageing is essentially stopped and restarts in the spring thaw. Last year's cheese therefore is actually softer than your normal - but still with all the flavors, which come from the rich Alpine milk.
The next stop was to see the high Alpine meadow, and then watch the goat and cows being brought in from the fields.
A panorama of the high Alpine meadow, only a few days after thawing fully.
Although the high alpine meadow wasn't particularly green, the little flowers were already starting to bloom, even though it was only a few days after the snow had retreated. In the short amount of time available, the vegetation was going to make the most of the time it had!
Back down the Alp, we joined the family as they coaxed, and called the goats into the milking parlour for their evening milking. It was a wonderful sight to see to small girls, driving a herd of rather unwilling goats to get milked. In the end, I think, both the goats, and the girls had fun doing it.
The cows were scattered across the opposite side of the valley, and before the goat herding started, Remo had already ridden his bike across the valley to call, and herd these gentle, if not confused and stubborn animals up the hill towards the milking parlour, where Max and Nina waited. The call he used was is similar to the one you can hear in the goat video. Once the cows got moving on the road, they knew where they were going, and pretty much led themselves in the procession you can see in the video below.
One in the parlour, Nina and Max hooked them up to the milking machines, pumped the milk into the urns, and loaded them into the car to go up to the cheesemaking hut for storage until tomorrow.
It was a full day at the Alp, and we really felt a connection and admiration to the love and hard work each of the family member gave to the Alp, but it was with a smile that we said our fair wells - and risked another descent down a dodgy Alpine road.