Published: September 16th 2006August 19th 2006
Cheese is big in Switzerland. And in order to get more intimate with this country, I spent a week working with Simon Schelbert, an Alp-cheese maker, on his cheesery at 1700m above the Muotothal valley. Here is how he lives summer long...
Firstly, you need to make sure that you are in a beautiful place in the back of nowhere, well out of easy contact with other humans. Then, get up really early, so you can start working at 6am, just before it gets light. The working day starts with an intimate encounter with a herd of grubby cows - head down cleaning nipples and milk-sacks with a warm, wet rag. Beware of potential projectile evacuations from above!
Cleaning, milking, feeding and releasing the 35 cows into the mountains takes just over 2 hours. Another half hour of back-breaking shovelling of the ammunition from the cows projectile tendencies, a bit of sawdust here and there and you have earned breakfast…
Brösum is the swiss mountain equivalent of porridge. Ground maize soaked in water, then fried with butter and cream and served with sugar. It is not the stuff fantasies are made of, but as time goes on, hunger
is much more a priority than taste, and I came to quite enjoy after a week.
Meanwhile the milk - both ours and from a neighbouring farmer - is machine stirred in a 900 l copper vat at a regular temperature of 28 degrees. With the addition of the secret white powder, the surface of the milk becomes a congealed gel of creamy milk goo. This is then cut with a wire slicer and left until the chunks sink in the remaining green juice. It is from this green liquid that Rivella, one of Switzerland’s favourite and most healthy soft drinks, is made.
The solid portion (cottage cheese-like lumps) is then separated from the fluid and pressed into molds and loaded with weights. At this point it is a white, slightly sweet, but otherwise flavourless rubbery substance.
Caring for the cheese is a lot more work than one may presume. For the first day of its life, it must be turned every two hours in the mold. For the second day, it lives in a salt bath, which is also regularly monitored. Thereafter, the 6 kg wheels must be cleaned, salted and turned regularly in order for
them to ripen well. With a large cellar, this can take a large chunk of time…
In the evening the cows are milked again and the milk stored in a cooled tank until the next days cheese batch. In between times, there is much more to be done; everything that living on an alp requires…
We spent an afternoon piping and spraying effluent on the grassy hillside near the stall. Felling a few trees, cutting and loading the logs into a flat-deck all-terrain vehicle, burning off the remaining scraps and storing the wood at the house for future use (hot water supply and heating is from fire).
Two days were spent cutting grass, collecting it and storing it as silage in the barn. Much of this involved manual labour - sickle, rake and pitch-fork to clear every section of the steep and profiled terrain that is not accessible by machine. In many other parts of the world these areas would be left unused, but here they use every piece of potentially usable land for grass. Hard and beautiful work with the strong smell of herbs from the rich and varied grass that we were cutting. Later the grass
is loaded into a large pit, a weighted tractor to compress the fresh cuts and the pit is eventually covered to keep the feed fresh.
There are also beef cattle up on the mountain, about 400 m elevation above the house. These need to be checked daily to make sure all are present and healthy. The butcher arrived on Friday to pickup ten of the pigs from the stall to take ‘down the hill’. This took 5 people 1.5 hours to load the ten stroppy animals into the truck!
An entire afternoon shovelling a large dung heap into the truck, then out onto the fields below to spread the love. This ritual was performed again and again to clear a months worth of cow dung…
In the evening, there is some free time after about 8:30, and this is used to play the traditional swiss card game, Jass. Simon is a very sharp player and never passes up an opportunity to let his competitive nature thrive...
Late in the evening, when the sun is long gone and the bed is beckoning, Simon will finish off his day by calling an ode to the mountains through an
old butter funnel. This to me is akin to the ritual chanting I used to hear living in a Chinese monastary and the call to prayer across the old Medinas in Morocco, but with his strong dialect and unique intonations, Simon's version belongs here in the swiss mountains...
There are more photos below