Traditional alpine cheesemaking big dollar earner for Swiss farmers

by Carolyn Thornton

FUSIO, Switzerland: In late May or early June livestock from the villages of the Maggia Valley north of Locarno, Switzerland are trucked north from sea level to Fusio, the last village in the valley. From there, the road narrows, and with zig-zagging, hairpin turns climbs to 2000 m/6000 ft into the remote Sambuco Valley where the animals spend the summer grazing.

“We bring up the cows, sheep, goats and the porks to alpine pasture in summer because the grass is better,” said tourism guide Eliana Franchini-Richina.

By summer the lowland grasses in the Mediterranean climate around Locarno and Lugano have died and turned brown, but the Alps that rim Lakes Maggiore and Lugano grow lush, green grasses.

From Fusio, it takes a full day to walk the animals up the mountain road.

Less than ten miles north of Sambuco Valley rises the St. Goddard massif, which marks a natural cultural divider between the southern, Italian-speaking region and the rest of German- and French-speaking Switzerland.

The St. Goddard tunnel is Switzerland’s busiest north-south corridor for car and rail traffic. By contrast, on the Sambuco’s steep, rocky flanks one can hear the soft clank of goat bells and the more distant jangle of cow bells.

Hikers, intrepid bicyclists, and van loads of tourists follow the route of the cows to reach a simple 20 x 20 foot concrete block building where cheese is made each summer. A chalkboard sign at the road announces Alpe Campo da Torba and its products: formaggio, burro, ricotta (cheese, butter, ricotta) being produced that day.

With neck bells clanking, nanny goats freely wander up and down the slopes, edging past the tourists to sniff out the cheese samples on display and maybe flick out a tongue for a sample. Across the road contented pigs laze in the alpine grass, taking turns to lap up the tasty whey by-product fed in troughs.

Visitors crowd into Alpe Campo da Torba to learn about the process of making traditional cheeses.

Twice a day interns climb the slopes to gather the cows. The lure of a little pan of corn brings the cows in close to the milkers and keeps them still long enough for hand milking right on the pastures.

“The cows want to be milked,” said one herd owner, Renaldo “Filo” Filipelli, who serves the local cheese in his Restaurant Antica Osteria Dazio in Fusio. His cows are mixed in and graze with those of his neighbors. The average Swiss farmer owns two dozen head, all bearing individual names. “Goats are more difficult (to milk). Goats are shy and rarely graze outside of sight of the cheesemaking shed.”

Brown Swiss are the breed of choice because of their higher hemoglobin level, which makes high altitudes tolerable. Their somewhat short legs work well on the steep land. They also adapt well to Switzerland’s summer heat.

Most people don’t think of Switzerland as hot but the towns of Locarno and Lugano are studded with palm trees and only the uplands are cool.

In Switzerland, traditional cheeses are not made in industrial factories but in village dairies where the farmer is closely involved with his animals. Highly sought after traditional cheeses are only made during the green summer season.

Each valley and village produces its own distinctive cheese. Demand is so high for these seasonal delicacies that patrons must places orders three months prior to the start of alpine grazing. Any cheese not sold directly is used in restaurants such as Filo’s Antica Osteria Dazio.

A small amount of traditional cheese is sold in the Bellinzona Saturday market or in Lugano. Commodity cheese made from winter milk doesn’t sell as well and dominates Switzerland’s exports and domestic supermarkets.

By the way, unless a cheese is specifically labeled “pasteurized,” cheeses in Switzerland are made from raw milk. No reference to raw milk is required by law.

Alpe Campo da Torba, which is situated in the high mountains at the far end of the manmade Sambuco Lake and Dam, is literally in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, groups of tourists and individuals find their way here to sample and purchase the summer cheese.

Cheesemaker, Georgio Dazio, and two helpers make cheese from June to September, blending 20% goat and 80% cow milk from 190 goats and 90 cows. Generally, cheesemakers own no cows. They rent the cows. Payment is made in cheese.

The fresh raw milk is sent down by a small pipeline from the upland pastures to a 1200 liter vat chilled by stream water in a concrete block building at Alpe Campo da Torba. From the storage vat the raw milk from the previous evening and the morning milk is heated in a wood-fired copper vat to 32.5 degrees C/90.5 degrees F.

Rennet and lactic acid bacterial are added for fermentation. Heating continues to 45 degrees C/128 degrees F - being careful to keep the temperature low to avoid pasteurization.

Once the milk has curdled to a yoghurt-like consistency, a cheese harp separates the cheese from the whey. Two men insert a cheesecloth woven from hemp into the vat to remove balls of curds from the watery whey.

Liquid is drained off the curds on a pressing table. This is then packed into wheel forms and left in the cellar for 24 hours to allow more water to seep away. Each vat of milk produces 100 kilos (220 lbs) of cheese.

The whey is fed to baby pigs that travel up the mountain with the cattle each summer and, fattened on whey, they return for harvest in the fall.

Cheese wheels are stored in stacked-stone huts with 90% humidity. Hay stuffed in the attic of the cellar helps to insulate the cheeses and keep them cool. Cats are an essential element during aging to keep the mouse population under control.

For the first three months of aging cheeses are turned every two days. They can be eaten after three months, but the longer the ageing, the stronger the cheese flavor and the higher the value.

Milder, shorter aged cheese is called Formaggio. After two months it becomes harder, and can then be called Valle Maggia. “They are really natural, with no chemical additives,” said Mrs. Franchini-Richina.

The most flavorful Valle Maggia cheeses have been aged one year or longer.

Cheese made solely from cows’ milk cost $70 US a wheel. Three-inch-think wheels, about the size of dinner plates weigh 5 kilos/ 10-12 lbs. Combination goat and cows’ milk cheeses sell for about $90 US.

Georgio Dazio and his helpers, who are paid in cheese, make 124 wheels of cheese daily - a gross of US $8,400 - $11,000 per day. Most cheesemakers take vacations from other jobs in order to make summer cheese.

Aside from producing tasty specialty cheeses, alpine grazing helps prevent erosion above the tree line, which could lead to avalanches or rockfalls. Grazing keeps the land from turning into steppes and removes shrubs that obstruct hiking.

Plus, the highly mineralized mountain soils make sweeter milk. Many Alps are privately owned, and there are 300 open acres owned by the Swiss government. Graziers pay a small per animal grazing fee. Like wages, the rental fees are payable in cheese.

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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