All over Europe at this time of year, countless sheep, goats and cows perform a sort of carefully choreographed dance routine as they move northward from parched plains to lush pastures in kinder climates, or from tired winter quarters to alpine meadows where the grass is just emerging from its snow-covered sleep. The annual transhumance, or migration, has begun.
Every summer for the past 20 years, Ernst and Margrit Kübli have decamped with their small herd of Simmentaler cows from their farm in Switzerland’s Simmental Valley and headed up to the Chalet Horneggli above Saanenmöser, near Gstaad, in the heart of the Bernese Oberland. All along this breathtaking valley, the intricately carved, dark-stained wooden chalets are embellished with geraniums and precision-stacked log piles and hung with simple, homespun signs advertising Berner Alpkäse. This traditional mountain cheese has been made for centuries in small chalets in these mountains throughout the summer.
I made my way up to the Küblis’ chalet recently to find out about their Berner Alpkäse (käse is German for cheese), part of the research for my forthcoming book on Swiss farmhouse cheeses. The Chalet Horneggli is the real deal, weathered and darkened by the years, its handsome carved staircase and first-floor balcony festooned with flowers. Sweeping views down the valley end with Schönried and Gstaad, whose five-star hotels and jewelry stores seem from another planet.
Chalet-made Berner Alpkäse
“Where are the cows?” I wonder aloud, puzzled not to have seen any from the track leading to the chalet. Ernst swings open the wooden door connecting the dairy to the adjoining stable, revealing a row of curious white faces with curly topknots, gracefully curved horns, café au lait coats and tails held high by lengths of string to keep them out of the way during milking.
A local farmer owns this alp; the Küblis rent the chalet and make the cheese. Most summers there are some 30 Simentalers grazing here, about half owned by the Küblis, the other half by the alp-owner. “It’s a lovely placid breed,” says Ernst.
Cheese-making takes place in the front room-cum-dairy-cum-dining room of the chalet, where fresh raw milk is warming gently in the obligatory copper vat over the obligatory wood fire.
Once the milk is lukewarm, Ernst adds the starter bacteria, the Küblis’ own culture, some of which is reserved from each successive batch of cheese. Because the culture is specific to their herd and to the distinctive Alpine flora on which the cows graze, the Küblis’ Alpkäse has a unique flavor — “Rächt chüschtig,” (“really spicy”) — is how Ernst describes it. In fact, every Alpkäse tastes a little different from its neighbor, which makes tasting them a voyage of discovery.
Next Ernst stirs in the rennet which sets the milk to a firm, smooth curd, a bit like thick yogurt. Then he activates the cheese harp, an arrangement of wires set into an arm above the vat. As the harp rotates, it cuts the curd in small pieces. The curds are squeaky on the teeth, rubbery and tasteless. Strange, I reflect, that these bland little blobs will knit together and be transformed into a smooth, fragrant cheese with superb, complex aromas. “D’r Chäs tuet ständig schaffe!” (“Cheese is constantly at work”) says Ernst with relish in his broad Bernese dialect.
Once the curds reach the correct temperature and the right size (“Stecknadelkopfgross,” the size of thumb tacks, according to the rulebook), Ernst throws open the hinged cast-iron jacket enclosing the vat which he swings out and away from the fire on a sort of gallows-like pulley.
Together the Kublises gather the curds into a capacious cheesecloth square. They close the corners, squeeze the cloth into a balloon-like bag and lift it over to the traditional, circular wooden mold, which will brace and shape the cheese. Ernst settles the curds in snugly and tightens the adjustable cord to pull the mass firmly together. The cheese will be pressed overnight, then brined and finally taken down to the cellar to start its maturing process.
Berner Hobelkäse is matured longer
Besides Berner Alpkäse, Ernst makes the even longer-matured Berner Hobelkäse. A hobel is a carpenter’s plane, and the cheese is served in wafer-thin slices. The cheesemaking process is identical for both Alp- and Hobelkäse, but Alpkäse is ready for sale after six months’ maturing in naturally cool, damp cellars or in the special storerooms called spycher.
For Hobelkäse, some wheels of the finest quality Alpkäse are singled out for special treatment: the rind is cleaned off and the wheels moved to a slightly warmer, considerably drier storage room where they will be aged for at least six months more, and up to three years in total. This long maturing results in an extra-hard cheese with tight structure and powerfully developed flavor.
We settle around the scrubbed pine table for a tasting of Ernst’s year-old Alpkäse and 3-year-old Hobelkäse. Both are redolent of the stable and overlaid with faint but unmistakable hints of wood smoke. The sliced Alpkäse, with a smattering of pea-sized holes and crunchy, salty crystals, is pleasingly piquant.
The super-fine, almost transparent sheets of the more matured Hobelkäse, sliced with a special mandoline-style instrument and rolled into cannelloni-size cylinders (see top photo), are intensely spicy, the wafer thin sheets melting on the tongue and leaving a deep, lasting flavor. Served with gnarled bread from a wood-fired oven, home-made jam and lashings of thick cream skimmed straight from the milk, and accompanied by warm bovine smells and a gentle symphony of cowbells from the stable next door, the cheese makes a breakfast to remember.
Sue Style is the author of nine books, including “A Taste of Alsace and Alsace Gastronomique.” She writes on food, wine and travel from her base in southern Alsace, close to Switzerland and Germany, and for her website www.suestyle.com. Her book on Swiss farmhouse cheeses will be published by Bergli Books in September 2011.
Top photo: Hobelkäse sliced traditionally. Credit: Nikos Kapelis
Slideshow credits: Nikos Kapelis