After crossing the Surenen pass during my attempt at the Swiss Alpine Pass Route, I came upon a sign saying "Alp Käse". Not being the type of person who can walk past cheese, (especially after walking 8 hours that day), I stopped to make a purchase and have a look around the dairy. The Raclette that we ate later that night when we returned to Zürich took me by surprise. Here was a cheese that was delicate, with the flavours of Alpine grasses bursting through and a milky sweetness that spoke of the environment of where it came from.
At Stäfeli, Ruth and Stefan Arnold are kept busy seeing to 20 cows, 20 goats, 100 sheep and 20 pigs. After milking their animals each morning, Ruth and Stefan set to work making Raclette, mountain AlpKäse, butter and a little semi- hard Alp Goat milk cheese - a variety of cheese rarely found in Engelberg’s dairies. The couple process around 45,000 litres of milk each summer. Most of their production is used in the family restaurant next to the dairy on the mountain, with none being sold outside the area they live in.
The Arnolds are only making cheese in the summer time when the animals are grazing on the Alpine Pastures, so these are true Alpine cheeses. In the winter season the Arnolds do other work - Mr Arnold on the ski fields at Engelberg.
The Stäfeli, almost 1,400 metres above sea level, is the last stop before crossing the Surenen Pass - a beautiful high mountain pass across the Urner Alps in the canton of Uri in Central Switzerland. The pass crosses between the Blackenstock and the Eggenmanndli peaks, at an elevation of 2,292 m. The animals are grazing on diverse alpine pastures between Stäfeli and the Surenen Pass.
There is no escaping the Brexit rollercoaster.
We read with interest this point of view from Stefan Legge, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in economics at the SIAW Institute of the University of St.Gallen in Switzerland. "The upside of Brexit: key lessons for Switzerland" gives commentary from outside the UK debate.
A different world up with the cows near the Klausen Pass - the connection between Canton Uri & Canton Glarus. A vast alpine grazing area, which has both cows and sheep. Nearby is the glacier lake at the base of Mount Clariden.
Raclette is eaten all year round in Switzerland - it's not just for the winter after a day spent on the ski slopes.
Raclette grilled on the BBQ (on a dish or tinfoil), is wonderful on burgers.
For an all time favourite, try Croûte au fromage made with Raclette.
For 4 people
Butter to fry the bread
8 large slices of sourdough bread
0.5 dl of white wine
500 g raclette cheese (grated or cubed)
0.5dl of cream
1 dl of white wine
Heat the butter in a pan and toast the slices of bread.
Sprinkle with white wine and place on a grill lined with parchment paper.
For the filling, mix all the ingredients and spread on the slices of bread. Grill about 10 minutes in a preheated oven at 250 ° C, then serve. A green salad on the side makes a good meal.
*A bit about Gruyère Alpage
During the summer months, from mid May to mid October, is the time when this extraordinary Gruyère is made. At this time of year once the snow has melted, the farmers walk their cows up onto the high alpine pastures to take advantage of the abundant summer alpine grazing. It is here in the mountains, sometimes at an altitude exceeding 2000m in often ancient alpine chalets, that the cheesemaker works. It is the botanic diversity of the alpine pasture which gives the milk, and consequently the cheese, it’s distinctive flavour.
The family follows the cows and moves up into the mountains. They stay for these months in the Chalet where they sleep, cows are milked, and cheese is made. Life on the alps is labour intensive and often involves quite basic living conditions. The cows are grazed and bought to the chalet to be milked and cheese is made daily starting early each morning without pause.
Within the chalet’s cheesemaking room is an area where a fire can be made on the floor. Each morning fresh milk is poured into a traditional large copper vat which is then suspended over the fire. The vat can be moved on or off the fire, depending on the point in the process of the cheesemaking and the heat required - and there is great skill involved in controlling the fire. The ceiling of the chalet comes to a high point above the fire - a form of chimney, blackened by years of fire, to let the smoke escape. The smell of smoke fills the room, and the spark of wood burning is constant.
Production is limited. On average only about two cheeses are made per day. The cheese work is physical - the process and equipment not having changed much over time, but also there is the work of managing the herd, wood for the fire, and daily jobs around living in the chalet.
The skill of the cheesemaker is paramount - the conditions are changing constantly; the pasture the cows are eating alters throughout the season, which in turn affects the milk; the weather conditions on the Alp can alter very quickly, altering temperatures in the cheesemaking room. So the cheesemaker has to balance these fluctuations to maintain the quality of the finished cheese.
Cheeses are taken down the mountain when they are only a few days old to be matured in a central maturing house alongside the cheese of other producers. There has to be a close relationship between the cheesemaker and the affineur - they are both working together to ensure quality. Cheesemakers often have a life long commitment to sell cheese to one Affineur, and the Affineur in turn supports with training and advice.
Peoples passion, skill, sense of tradition, and commitment to quality come together to enable the continued production of Gruyère Alpage - despite a new era where this form of food production is facing many challenges.
* A bit about Fondue
Fondue is one of those dishes that have no definitive recipe. How you make Fondue seems to be influenced by where you are from in Switzerland and therefore, what cheese is made and available in your area. It is bad news for all the ‘scientific cooks’ out there who like precise instructions.
The following is a good combination:
• 6 Parts Gruyère
• 2 Parts Vacherin Fribourgeois
• 2 Parts Bergkäse – like Stilsitzer Steinsalz, Nidelkäse or First König.
• With the addition of 1/2 the weight of cheese in white wine. (A dry wine with a good acidity).
• A little Kirsch (Whiskey works well also).
• And finally, if you think you need it, a little cornstarch mixed with the Kirsch. (about 3 tsp for 1kg of
cheese). If you have a good blend there should be no need to add cornstarch.
Begin by heating up some of the wine, then gradually add the cheese and the cornstarch/kirsch mixture. And stir while it melts. Add more wine as necessary, until it reaches the desired thickness. It is very important to stir continually without heating the mixture too aggressively, as there is a danger that it will burn and stick to the bottom of the fondue pot.
If you have a cheese that separates or becomes oily on the surface, usually you need only increase the heat a little and stir more vigorously - or add a little wine.
The fondue that is called "moitié-moitié" or "half and half," referring to the proportions of cheese, is made with Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois.
Garlic? It’s up to you. Cut a clove in half and rub around the inside of the fondue pot before you start.
How much cheese to use? A guideline is 1.2 kgs of cheese to 6-8 people.
Black Pepper? A good addition in our opinion.
Here is the latest news from Xristina,
"It's on it's way! It will definitely be around for the first week of December or sooner. We had a difficult year this year in the area with the weather (hail), but our field did pretty well".
The new season pressing of the Greek olive oil from Xristina will arrive in December, however there is no firm date yet.
With lashings of olive oil in mind, Saveur magazine published this lovely soup recipe http://www.saveur.com/italian-bean-vegetable-soup-recipe There is no cheese angle here, but lots of oil and seasonal vegetables.