When a merchant raves about cheese made in the Alps from summer milk, I tend to imagine cows knee-deep in lush pasture. I rarely think about the people who led the cows up there, milked and managed them and lived in isolation in the mountains, sometimes in primitive conditions, for months. Yet that’s the back story to Switzerland’s alpage wheels. A few rugged folks endure a lot of hardship to make these distinctive cheeses happen.
No wonder this tradition of transhumance—the annual trek up the mountains every summer to utilize the fresh grass—has been dwindling. What young person with other options would want that lifestyle?
Fortunately, the Swiss government realizes that a key part of its dairy heritage is imperiled and is now trying to bring more attention to these glorious alpage wheels. More attention means, presumably, more demand and more income for the cheesemakers, so that more people might be willing to undertake the transhumance.
Two years ago, I wrote about the clever Adopt-an-Alp program dreamed up by Quality Cheese, a Florida importer of Swiss cheeses. Now, after a year’s lapse, the program is back, this time with support from the Swiss government. Here’s how it works:
American retailers are invited to “adopt an alp” by committing in the spring to purchasing 10 wheels from a specific mountain cheesemaker. The wheels arrive in late fall, when they are five to six months old. Each of these cheesemakers, or cheesemaking families, operates on a different alp. Some make one type of cheese only—a raw cow’s milk wheel known generically as alpkäse. Some make multiple types, including Raclette and Sbrinz, a hard grating cheese.
Participating cheesemakers send photos and reports during the time they are on the alp, typically from May to September, so that retailers can follow along and share the experience with customers. Caroline Hostettler of Quality Cheese has assembled the reports into a charming blog, a window into what life is like for these families.
In my imagination, alpage cheeses were made by crusty mountain men working solo in rustic stone huts with no electricity. In fact, many people take the whole family and several helpers. Some have built comfortable chalets with modern cheesemaking equipment and Internet access. A few families operate a seasonal shop where they sell their cheese, yogurt and butter to hikers and mountain bikers; some even have small restaurants. At the other extreme, the wife and kids remain in the valley, and the wife sends her husband clean clothes and fresh food every so often.
The challenge for retailers—and the reason why more don’t participate—is that they have to commit to buying cheese they haven’t tasted. Hostettler acknowledges this hurdle but hopes that retailers and consumers will embrace the opportunity to support “the unique lifestyle of transhumance.”
The cheese pictured above was made by the Theiler-Steger family on Alp Äbnistetten and adopted by San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery. Because many of these big alpine cheeses are bland when young and need months of maturation, Rainbow chose wheels made in the summer of 2014. Last year’s Äbnistetten alpkäse has a few eyes the size of petite peas; a firm, slightly sandy texture; and aromas of brown butter and walnut with a subtle celery or herbal scent. The flavor is intense and long lasting, with a spicy finish.
Participating Adopt-an-Alp retailers have just received their wheels. In addition to Rainbow Grocery, “adopters” in the Bay Area include Cheese Board (Berkeley), Pasta Shop (Oakland) and Nugget Markets (Sacramento area). If you would like to give a wedge of Swiss alpine cheese a good home, now’s your chance.