Cheese: Gold of the Alps

The Montafon Sura Kees (sour cheese) is allowed to mature in the cellar for several months and is an indispensable part of the local cuisine. 

© Stockfood

The Montafon Sura Kees (sour cheese) is allowed to mature in the cellar for several months and is an indispensable part of the local cuisine.

The Montafon Sura Kees (sour cheese) is allowed to mature in the cellar for several months and is an indispensable part of the local cuisine. 

© Stockfood

It's like travelling back in time when you visit farmed alpine pastures and witness the mystical process of cheese-making. Alpine dairy farmers who still make cheese subordinate their entire lives to this centuries-old ritual. The well-being and health of dairy cows and goats is paramount: a summer is only successful when all the animals are back in the valley in good health. They are not production units with barcodes, but living beings, part of the family and, naturally, are called by name.

Life with the cows is therefore much more than a symbiosis, they are relationships with different personalities and characters. Alpine dairy farmers know exactly which cow comes for milking first and which always dawdles along at the back. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that each cow's milk tastes different.

An active animal has a greater radius of movement than a leisurely one, and the variety of grasses and herbs on the alpine pastures is so great that each animal eats different food. Children of dairy farming families who spend the summer in the Alps, often have favourite cows when it comes to their personal enjoyment of milk.

Feeling and experience

The rhythm of cheese production is in the blood of dairy farmers, many of whom have witnessed it from childhood, watching their mothers, grandmothers, fathers or grandfathers. The day begins with milking, morning milk is mixed with the evening milk and rennet and heated in a copper kettle over an open fire. And yet no two days are the same; the milk from a fine weather day is different from that of a rainy day or one with storms.

The dairy farmers‘ intuition is decisive, their craft is to feel the temperature and consistency of the milk with their bare hands. It hardens slowly, when it reaches a certain firmness it is cut with a cheese harp, the solid and liquid components are separated and the raw cheese is pressed into moulds or shaped by hand.

The process is delicate and requires a lot of experience. For good cheese, each step must be carried out with great precision and care, because all these factors influence the quality of the cheese. Every cheese from every dairy farmer, from every alpine pasture, from every region tastes different. The Alps and their scenic beauty provide an over-arching theme; the diversity is reflected in the microclimates, the soil conditions, the vegetation and the traditions of each village and each family.

The diversity of taste

Alpine pastures cover a vast area, from the South Tyrol to Bavaria, from Montblanc to Salzburgerland. One of the great cheese markets is to be found at Innsbruck, in the market hall. Here there are often a wide range of Alpine cheeses for sale. One of the most valuable artisanal dairy products is Tyrolean grey cheese, which has been granted protected designation of origin (PDO) due to its centuries old tradition.

It is a spicy variant of a sour milk cheese. Made from cow's milk it is skimmed and soured before being heated, salted and pressed into wooden moulds and matured for two to three weeks. Tyrolean grey cheese is a great ploughman's lunch cheese - simply enjoyed with pickled onions, slices of apple and freshly baked, crusty farmhouse bread - nothing more is needed!

The Ahrntaler Graukäse from South Tyrol is also produced by hand according to the same principle, but is allowed to mature for ten weeks in a cellar and so has a richer taste which makes it a wonderful addition to any pasta sauce - we are in Italy, after all! This speciality has become so rare that it is now protected by a Slow Food Presidium, which aims to promote quality produce and ancient production techniques at risk of extinction. 

Another gem of Alpine cuisine is Vorarlberg Sura Kees, or sour cheese which is made without rennet. Skimmed milk is allowed to sour in a wooden barrel. (The cream is skimmed off and turned into butter). The skimmed milk is then gently warmed and the so-called bolma (curd) rises as a solid component, this is separated, salted and matured.

The Montafon Sura Kees can be traced back to the 12th century and is still produced by Alpine dairy farmers today, as it was hundreds of years ago. Veronika and Christian Kartnig manage their 30 cows at 1,680 metres above sea level in Austria's Garneratal. For them, the ancient rhythm of life on the mountain is fulfilling and balances their high-tech office jobs as graphic designer and programmer respectively. The Sura Kees is especially close to their hearts being an important part of traditional Montafon cuisine.

Smoked cheese

Acid plays an important role in an almost forgotten cheese from the Alpine hills around Salzburg: Pinzgauer Schotten are made from fresh whole milk and vinegar. This firm cheese is turned through a meat grinder, formed into cones by hand and seasoned with herbs, salt and pepper. Afterwards they are cold-smoked for ten days, which gives them an incomparable smoky aroma that is reminiscent of both bacon and parmesan.

Monika Voglreiter is one of a few who still make the traditional Schotten. The former banker runs a farm near Kaprun where she keeps five dairy cows - her range of Schotten cones is therefore correspondingly limited, but all the more sought-after. Schott is mainly used grated or shaved on fresh bread (it makes excellent cheese on toast) made into soup or dumplings or sprinkled over pasta or meat.

Cheese and wine

It is thanks to the Slow Food movement Presidium that the legendary Zincarlin, a cheese from the Swiss side of the Valle di Muggio, not far from the Italian border and Lake Como, is once again playing a role in the kitchen. Zincarlin was virtually forgotten until the support of the Slow Food movement in 2004 helped re-establish this ancient raw milk and white wine cheese.

This speciality is made from raw cow's milk, to which a little goat's milk is added. The curdled milk is pressed, seasoned with pepper and moulded by hand into the shape of a truncated cone. During the two-month maturing period in cellars, the cheese is treated daily with white wine and salt. Served fresh it is best enjoyed as a spread with chestnut honey. Mature versions play to their strengths as soloists - and you wouldn't be in Ticino Canton if you didn't eat Zincarlin without a glass of Merlot.

Nothing to complain about

While goat's milk plays a subordinate role in Zincarlin, Willi Schmid's Hölzig-Geiss Käse is, without doubt, one of the most sought after goat's cheeses from the Alps. Schmid is known as Switzerland's cheese mastermind and has won the Swiss Cheese Award several times; he supplies top chefs such as Andreas Caminada and Daniel Humm. Hölzig-Geiss is a special breed of goat named after the region. Schmid, based in Toggenburg, west of Liechtenstein crafts his soft goat cheese with a characterful and unmistakable resinous aroma by ripening it in fresh spruce bark.

Goats' cheese is generally becoming more and more popular in the Alpine region. In part, this is due to the many health benefits of goats milk, but also its distinctive flavour lends itself to be enhanced by other Alpine ingredients such as juniper needles and larch ash. 

The Alpine highlands provide a truly astonishing variety of cheeses from dedicated people who uphold century-old traditions and rely on ancient recipes, many of which have been handed down over generations. These are people who give their lives to nature, who are in tune with the seasons and who are only satisfied when their animals are healthy and content.

The importance of this time honoured, sustainable method of farming is still celebrated in Austria with the festival of Almabtrieb which is usually held at the end of September/beginning of October. This is when the cattle, dressed in garlands made from flowers, herbs and evergreen  foliage foliage from the Alpine meadows, are brought down from the mountains to the safety of their homesteads - their cowbells clanging noisily to keep the demons away.