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Day Five: Ticino, the Italian Canton.

After a brief night's rest in Lucerne, we drove south towards the Italian canton Ticino. I started to feel a bit more comfortable, as the German language has never sat well with me, since my 1 year when I was 13. Italian, however, I have been lucky enough to become proficient enough to not embarrass myself (I think!).

To get to Ticino from German Switzerland, you must pass through the Gotthard pass - a deep gorge carved out by the Ticino river. This pass has been used since early mediveal times, when Italian traders used to bring their horse and cart through the narrow, and dangerous gorge, up to Switzerland to buy cheese. Italian traders, who bought cheese from the town of Brienz, and mistakenly called the cheese 'Sbrinzo' (now known as Sbrinz), gave the Italian cheesemakers the idea for Parmigiano. So a significant amount of money and goods travelled through here, and traders became targets for highway robbery. The cantons decided to build roads and make the pass more accessible. There is still part of the road built in the 1200s visible today.

There's also a modern day engineering marvel in this gorge - not just a medieval one. The train tracks have been buried underground, and form two huge circles, which allows trains to climb and descend at a reasonable gradient: the gorge would otherwise be impassable.

Our guide for this was Mauro Gendotti, an Alp owner, a veterinarian and the President of the Swiss Alp Comission, who had travelled down from his Alp to bring show us the gorge and lead us through some very looking Italian village, up to a friend's Alp - Alp Carì.

When we reached Alp Carì, the main work of the day seemed over. The modern cheesemaking room was being hosed down, and the cheesemakers children were starting to play around the buildings. But we were taken straight to the cave, where differences between the Italian and German Swiss Alpkase were clearly seen.

In the other parts of Switzerland, the wheels were brined and then brushed regularly to keep any mould off the cheese. Here, the mould was allowed to grow, but was pressed and flattened into the cheese, so that it formed a tight mottled grey rind.

The wheels were also imprinted with the word CARI on the side, and a batch number - different from the more subtle casein marks we'd seen applied other Alpkase and Sbrinz, which identified the Alp and the date of production. With excess milk Alp Carí created a smaller grey mottle-rinded cheese, that they called formagella, rather than the other Ziggers etc.

But they also shared some similarities with the German Swiss Alps. They left the cheeses up in the Alp to age, just like RuosAlp, so that, because of the cold winter air, the cheeses aged more slowly and retained more moisture leaving them softer than a regular Alpkase, but still with a good flavour.

After a quick cheese and wine sampling, we headed down for a stop at an Agrotourismo - a sort of farm or dairy with a bed and breakfast attached, where they serve mostly just their own products. The Agrotourismo was run and owned by a young couple who had started with just a few Saanen goats, and made cheese. They built up the bar, restaurant and herd, so that now they have about 40 goats, which they milk daily to produce the cheese, fresh and aged. After some hesitation the goats started to appreciate the attention, and soon several were back in the barn, hanging out near the milking station.

We were lucky enough that they wanted to serve us a full lunch, and so the combination of sunshine, wine, minestrone and cheese, was a good a soporific as one could want.

But the day wasn't finished there - for our final stop, Mauro wanted to show us the Capuchin Monastery in Faido, down in the valley. There was no dairy there, and no cheese (although there was nocino), but most of the monastery was now a day-care/school for local children. But Mauro wanted to show us the small monastery because it contained a large collection (over 1000) of books dating back to 1200s and beyond. Many of these books were hand written (or drawn), and there were some which were over-sized, which as the Brother said, we the 1200s version of a class PowerPoint for the students.

After an interview with Radiotelevisione Svizzera, where we could talk about what this trip meant,  we travelled to Ascona - a beuatiful medieval Italian town, flush with palm trees, piazza, and cafés, and a relaxed vibe that one would expect from a southern Italian village.

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