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Homage to Fromage

by Shari Mycek

From the pages of Epicurean

"There's where you're going."

Perched high on a hill, blanketed in yellow-purple-blue wild flowers, stands a dark-wooden alpine hut. Milk cans hang neatly on pegs alongside giant cow bells. Crisp, white linens beckon in greeting. Not laundry, but cheese cloths.

"You can always tell the huts where they're making cheese by the cheese cloths drying on the line," says Janice Weber, who has lived in Switzerland for the past 20 some years. It was Janice's idea to bring us up here, to experience the "real" Switzerland. And we are not disappointed.

Ausserberg Alp, part of the legendary east-to-west Bernese Oberland mountain chain, conforms like few others to the neat and pristine image conjured about Switzerland. With bell-laden cows and endless meadows of columbine, daisies, violets and forget-me-nots, it is the stuff of seductive travel posters and picture-perfect post cards.

As we wind our way upward, past rushing streams - cow bells clank-clanking in the distance - I expect at any moment to see Heidi emerge from the hut on her way to meet Peter and his herd of goats. Instead it is Florian, a bright-eyed, chubby-faced, two-year-old accompanied by his cheese-making mum, Marlene Seematter, who calls to us in sing-song Swiss-German.

Each year, between June and September, Marlene and husband, Hans Ueli, pack their belongings, scrub their cows and leave their village farm in Saxeten to make their way up the alp to make cheese. Their send-off is ceremonious with their 16 cows draped in giant cow bells and floral headdresses. Both Hans Ueli and Marlene are certified cheesemakers and for the past several years, their alpine cheese has received a 20.0 (best possible rating) from a discerning group of cheese inspectors who work in partnership with the Berner Oberland Mountain Agricultural College in Hondrich.

As we make our way into the solitary hut, Hans Ueli - a bearded, 40-year-old wearing faded jeans and blue tank top - is already hard at work stirring a whitish-yellow liquid in a gigantic 1920s copper pot - the cheese whey.

Every morning, fresh milk is poured directly into the copper cauldron and heated over an open fire. Rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach lining of calves reared solely on milk, is added to help curdle the milk, as is bacteria culture which helps to ferment and age the cheese. As the whey begins to separate itself from the cheese mass, the cauldron is removed from the fire by a heavy wooden swing handle, where it is stirred for 35 to 45 minutes before returning to the fire.

It is in this massive stirring stage that we find Hans Ueli. As his skillful hands churn masterfully over the cauldron, Marlene moves to the deep sink, expertly cleansing and preparing the round wooden cheese moldings. There is no electricity on the alp. A generator supplies the power needed for morning and afternoon milking.

Taking in the surroundings - the modest wooden table and chairs, the sleep mattresses in the upstairs loft, and the lack of toilet/bathing facilities - I marvel at the simplistic lifestyle and hard physical labor. Mountain cheesemaking has existed in the alps for nearly 600 years. In Hans Ueli's family, the art has been handed down through generations. His father was a cheesemaker as was his father before him.

"We love it here," says Marlene, in halting English. "In the morning and evening, when the generator is running, we listen to the radio and charge our cellular telephone. And in nice weather, people - like you - come up to visit."

As if on cue, an elderly Swiss couple from nearby Interlaken and two children knock at the door. They too want to experience their country's famous alpine cheese production. And their timing is perfect. Hans Ueli, using a muslin cheese cloth,

dips both arms into the copper pot, scooping out the cheese (which looks more like cottage cheese), leaving the whey behind. As he transfers the cheese into the "jarb," the Swiss children surround the copper pot excitedly, knowingly. Within moments, mugs of whey are passed, drinks taken and mugs refilled.

"Is goot," says the elder from Interlaken. "Have some." For centuries, Swiss farmers have sworn by the holistic health attributes of whey. I take the steaming mug. It tastes of warm, soury milk and I am not enamored. But the finished product is a different story.

Marlene leads us into a tiny, temperature-controlled "cheese cave." Once the cheese mass is transferred into the jarb, a lid is placed on top and a heavy stone press squeezes the rest of the whey from the cheese grains. After four-to-five hours, the new cheese is wrapped in a linen cloth and submerged in salt water (where it remains for two days). Here, the cheese loses even more fluidity and picks up salt which results in the formation of the hard rind and delicate inner texture. The cheese is then moved to the cheese cave, where it is rubbed with salt and turned over every second day. It is aged for at least three months.

Marlene cuts a generous wedge from one of the aged two-year pieces and the taste is radically different from the Swiss cheeses (Emmentals and Gruyères) I've had in the States. Swiss alpine cheeses, due mainly to their small mom-and-pop production, are not mass imported to the U.S. But they should be. Each alp produces its own unique flavor of cheese and the Ausserberg version is delicious. The Seematters do not skim off any cream from the milk to make butter (as is often done on other alps). The result is smooth, velvety, delicate cheese, yet intensely sharp - and fresh. No wonder. During the summer, in the high pastures of the alps, the Seematers' cows eat between 25 and 30 different wild flowers daily. I immediately purchase a kilo of the aged cheese to take with us.

Pausing halfway down the alp to lounge in a field of sun-splashed-yellow buttercups, I remove the delicacy from my backpack, along with a fresh loaf of bread and plump Italian nectarines. Biting into the crispy bread and mountain cheese, I sigh.

"I wish I could have this at home."

"Oh, but you can," says Janice, matter-of-factly. "You can rent a cow and have Ausserberg alpine cheese anytime you want."

"Rent a cow?" I look incredulously at our good-natured guide, seriously contemplating if the high altitude has taken a toll.

"Absolutely. You can rent any cow you like - Coney, Anemone, Arnika, Romy, Omega..."

Janice isn't kidding. Years ago, village farmers allowed alp owners to summer their herds on the high pastures in exchange for a year's supply of cheese. And Janice, in conjunction with the Seematters, has recently rekindled the ancient custom - enabling virtually anyone, anywhere in the world to rent a cow (or half a cow) in exchange for cheese. The idea is wild, crazy, fun. And in taking another bite of alpine cheese, I know I will seriously consider it.

It is not until hours later, void of hiking boots and sipping an ice-cold soda at the Alpenrose Hotel in Saxeten (the only hotel-bar in Saxeten), that I notice my silver-chain watch has slipped from my wrist. I had frantically purchased the watch just weeks before at the San Francisco airport after my other had died in mid-air. At the time, facing three days of back-to-back interviews, I couldn't imagine being without a watch. But now, in this tranquil, pastoral setting, I am hard-pressed to remember why a watch is even necessary.

Obviously, my opinion is shared.

Two days later, outside my door in Wilderswil - and next to a neatly wrapped package of Ausserberg cheese - is my watch. And a note from Marlene. There is no place on Ausserberg Alp for a shiny, over-priced, airport-purchased Anne Klein watch.

Ausserberg Alp, with its endless fields of waving wild flowers, synchronized cow bells and cheesemaking tradition, is timeless.

If You Go . . .

Ausserberg Alp is perched above the German-Swiss villages of Saxeten and Wilderswil (near Interlaken and approximately two hours from Zurich) in the Bernese Oberlands. From Wilderswil, hikers can walk (6 kilometers) or take the mailbus to Saxeten ($2 U.S. per person). From Saxeten, the hike up to Ausserberg takes close to two hours.

Renting A Cow:
The cost to rent a cow is $1,320 (U.S.) for 60 kilos of cheese (132 pounds). Price includes shipping to any destination in North America. Renters receive a photo of their cow. Cheese can be distributed all at once or throughout the year in 6-10 kilo amounts.

Renters may arrange to visit their cow between July 1 and September 15. For those renting a cow, the hike up to the alp is free.

For non-cow renters wishing to visit the Alp, the cost is $25 (U.S.) single; $45 per couple; and $50 per family. The hike, which lasts all day, includes a guide, visit inside the hut to see how the cheese is made and picnic lunch featuring Swiss Alpine cheese products.

Smaller amounts of alpine cheese are also available for purchase.

For information or reservation, contact Janice Weber, telephone: (in the U.S.) 734-971-7753 or (734)-717-4242. Or Email: janice@swiss-alpine-cheese.com.

In Wilderswil:
The Alpenblick Chalet offers friendly staff and great views of surrounding mountain peaks. Doubles start around $85 U.S. per night; breakfast included. Gourmet fare and Swiss specialties. Tel: 033 828 35 50. Fax: 033 828 35 51. Email: info@hotel-alpenblick.ch.

Hotel Baren, Wilderswil's oldest hotel, offers 50 rooms with shower or bath and WC. Doubles start at $85 per night including breakfast. Large collection of stuffed bears opposite the hotel in the Old Baren House built in the 15th century. Tel: 033 828 31 51. Fax: 033 828 31 52. Email: info@baren.ch.

In Saxeten:
The Alpenrose Hotel, Saxeten's sole restaurant/hotel, offers eight basic rooms (3 share a bath). Buffet breakfast of bread, cheese, meat and musli included in rate. $50 - $55 U.S. per night. Lunch and dinner served. Open May through October only. Tel: 033 822 18 34. email: Alpenrose.saxeten@tanet.ch.

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