After a night in the beautiful medieval town of Lucerne, we headed off north eastwrds for our final Alp visit of the tour, Alp Trosen in Tockenburg. Trosen is a multi-generational family run Alp. The cows had only been up in the middle meadow for about a week, because of heavy snows in the winter, which had resulted in a number of large avalanches. Onec the snow had melted there was a lot of fallen trees to clear up. And it was this which had delayed their departure to the Alp (and also the cheesemaking).
As we made our way up from the lower levels, on a reasonably undaunting Alpine road, we could see the remnants of this detritus, pushed aside in bundles at the side of the road. Even though we weren’t going as high as some of the other Alps, there were also large patches of dirty snow lying on the ground. The temperature was in the high 20 C, so it was remarkable that the snow had stayed for so long.
All the family on Trosen worked to make the dairy and cheesemaking work. The eldest generation was still the head cheesemaker (Jacob), and the grandmother cared for the grandchildren. The son (also Jacob) and daughter helped with the cows and cheesemaking, as well as working the fields cutting and gathering the hay. Jacob senior’s brother also helps with the cows and milking. In fact the herd of Brown Swiss cows who all grazed on Alp Trosen, were owned by 3 people Jacob, his brother, and a friend. In total, around 30 cows.
The Alp was really made of three distinct levels: the low level at the base of the Alp, where in the winter, the cows retreated, and ‘mountain cheese’ is made; the mid-level, where we were today, which was of sufficient altitude that true Alpkase (about 16 wheels a day) could be made; an upper level, where the extra altitude and more basic equipment allowed an ‘Alpage’ cheese to be made. The 16 wheel fitted in 2 per mould, which sat right next to the vat.
At the Alpage level, Jacob only took his herd to the top of the mountain, and so less milk meant around 10 wheels of Alpkase could be made. If you’ve read our blog entry on day one, when we visited Masion du Gruyère, that automated production machine produces between 1300 & 1400 wheels of Gruyère a day.
The milking parlour and cheesemaking room was small, clean and tidy. Milk, which was brought to the dairy in the evening, remained in vessels overnight, and then was directly piped into the vat. The steel-jacketed copper vat was connected to a source of steam – a wood burning heater, which heated Alp water collected from the stream running by outside. The Alp water was also used in the cleaning steps of the cheese making equipment, by using the steam and then hot water, to flush the entire piping lines, and surfaces. There are no machines to cut the curd here, this is done by hand using the cheese harp which hung on the wall. Jacob also makes a cheese called Bloderkase, for which the cheese harp isn’t used. Instead the branches of a small fir tree, stripped of its needles, is used to roughly cut the curd.
With any excess milk Jacob makes Zigger – the fresh cheese that we had on Alp Steiners Hohberg dipped in sugar. However, the version that is made on Trosen is aged for a few months, has herbs added, and is used as a grating cheese.
As we mingled among the (collective) herd of cows, they turned out to be the most curious of any we had encountered so far. Roaming around, ringing their cow bells as they went, and frequently coming close to get scratches, neck rubs and kisses, so much so some of the cows got rather jealous, and others got rather protective of their new found massage equipment.
Even when the family brought us in to the small hut, to sample their cheeses, a couple of the most curious cows followed and stood with one eye on the open window.
The people depend on the herd, and the herd depend on the people, and it is because of this that traditional Alpkase is such a special cheese. It completes a circle. The environment, animals and human occupants all give and take, but balance remains and the circle as a whole stays healthy.
Once this breaks down, for example: over grazing; adding artificial fertilizer; not caring for the animals; then the circle breaks down. The land becomes sick (pollution), the animals become sick (mastitis, infections), we become sick (allergies, asthma, autism, check more of my blog articles for these details).
We become disconnected with the land and the animals that feed us. We view the food, land and animals as commodities and machines to be used. The circle is broken, and this begins to affect each part, the animals, the land and us.
This visit to Switzerland has reminded me how much we are drifting into this path, and yet how there are examples, in countries from Switzerland, the UK, France, and even the USA, where this view is taken seriously, and people are attempting to glue the connections of the circle back together.
As cheesemongers, we have the responsibility to help consumers understand the connection between the land, animals and ourselves. How it makes a quality product, which supports a sustainable living, and a healthy living – for those people eating the cheese, the people making the cheese, and the animals providing the milk.