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Making Cheese in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland

A cottage industry in the Alps is making cheese. Using old-fashioned methods while accommodating new EU standards, village cheese-makers produce tasty Alp cheese, which they sell to hikers.

Complete Video Script

Nestled in the bottom of the valley is the town of Lauterbrunnen. Its central location makes it a handy hub from which to explore either side of the valley. From here, a funicular — which carries bikes as well as people — takes me straight up the mountain.

Rick: Excuse me. How steep is this?
Driver: Sixty-one percent.
Rick: Sixty-one percent! Kein Problem?
Driver: Never a problem.
Rick: Never? For one hundred years?
Driver: Yes.

This sure beats the stairs. And, from the top, a scenic lane leads back to my starting point in Mürren.

Exploring this natural wonderland, you come upon great examples of how, in Switzerland, tradition meets the modern world… and survives. This water wheel — 150 years old but washed out in a recent flood — was rebuilt with its blade still powered by a mountain stream. Almost all of the timber in the mountain villages around here was cut by water-powered mills like this. Small-scale mills are slower and more labor-intensive than modern mills, but there's still a strong demand for this more expensive — but traditionally made — local product.

Milk cows spend their summers munching the wild herbs and flowers in the high meadows. Their milk is destined to become the treasured Alp cheese, or Alpkäse.

Alpine farms — doing their traditional work — welcome hikers and bikers for a peek at the cheese-making action.

This farm is newly renovated to meet European Union standards. Failing to meet these would mean the cheese could not be exported. But still, traditional quality survives all these modern regulations.

Each morning Veronika — a licensed and highly trained cheese maker — and her crew milk the cows and heat a copper vat of milk over a wood fire. As it slowly curdles, it's stirred at just the right temperature until the consistency is exactly how Veronika likes it. At just the right moment, she swings the vat off the fire, then quickly dredges the vat with her cheesecloth and packs the fresh cheese into frames. This process is repeated every day for 100 days here in the high country — a cow's udder knows no weekend.

In the next hut, yesterday's cheese takes a two-day bath in salt brine, and, after a salty rubdown, it's marked "Alp Cheese" with a date and number, and set on a shelf to age.

Each village takes pride in its own cheese. This hut is full of local Alp cheese.

Rick: Guten Tag.
Local: Hello. Morgen.
Rick: Do you speak English?
Local: A little bit.
Rick: Ja, can I…well, I speak ein wenig Deutsch. Kann ich Alpkäse?
Local: Ja gerne. Möchten Sie ’nen testen?
Rick: Ja, bitte.
Rick: Okay, so this is Alpkäse?
Local: Ja, das ist Alp. Das ist der ober Alp.
Rick: Suppenalp — just up here?
Local: Ja.

Along with the younger Alpkäse, village cheese makers produce Hobelkäse — an older, stronger cheese aged for up to three years. It's named after the Hobel, or wood plane, that’s used to cut it.

Rick: Ah, that cuts different. So this is stronger?
Local: Ja.Yes.
Rick: Es schmeckt sehr gut.
Local: Schmeckt da’ Ihnen?
Rick: Mmm, besser.

And you can buy it by the wheel, wedge, or wafer-thin slice to take with you on a hike.

Local: Besten Dank!
Rick: Danke schön. Wiedersehen!
Both: Bye-Bye!

They say the character of the Alp cheese is shaped by the herbs and flowers the cows munch. Some locals claim they can tell in which valley the cows grazed just by the taste. I can't… but the taste is great. Mmm, that’s very good.