Cheese has been produced in the Swiss Alps for thousands of years. Beyond well-known Gruyère d’Alpage AOP, there’s hobelkäse, a rock-solid, aromatic wheel that’s served shaved into delicate curls. Then there’s raclette, which melts perfectly over potatoes and is like no other in its lactic nuttiness. While Alp cheeses are diverse, they all embody the unique terroir of high-altitude meadows and are made during the summer months when farmers engage in transhumance.
Transhumance—the seasonal migration of livestock from low-altitude grazing grounds in the winter to higher altitude pastures in the summer—is a rapidly dwindling practice found in rocky regions throughout the world. In Switzerland, where two-thirds of the land is mountainous, the practice has been de rigueur since the 1300s. Farmers there save precious valley plots for growing crops, sending livestock to graze in the mountains, where the animals move from meadow to meadow during the summer. Some cheesemakers have built conventional creameries right on the mountain, and others craft cheese over wood fires (just as it was done in the 14th century).
These cheeses have a particular level of historical authenticity to them; some cheesemaking families have traveled up an Alp each summer for eight generations. But life there can be challenging: Many farmers don’t have plumbing. Others have installed windmills to power fridges but travel down to the valley once a week to do laundry. Some cheeses are hand-stirred and made in the same room where families live and eat. There’s a strong pull to adopt a more modern lifestyle, to live in the valley year-round and sell milk to a company that would provide a set salary. As a result, there are fewer Alp cheesemakers each year.
Digging Into the Terroir
What makes Alp cheese so unique and worth the commitment to traditional transhumance? Beyond taste, it’s the health benefits derived from raw milk and the high-altitude meadows. “An Alp pasture counts between 110 and 120 different grasses, flowers, and herbs, [and] a perfect ratio of omega 3 and omega 6,” says Swiss cheese importer Caroline Hostettler, who runs Quality Cheese with her husband, Daniel. In Europe, they call it the “Alpine paradox”: People living at higher elevations—even those who do not have access to fresh vegetables, fruit, or grains—tend to have stronger bones, live longer, and have better teeth. “[Scientists] found that it’s because an important part of their diet is [Alp] milk, dairy products, and cheese,” Hostettler says, continuing that the curds are now considered a functional food in Europe, similar to the way that olive oil is coveted for its health benefits.
Furthermore, results of a study that compared traditional Alp cheese with other cheeses, including commercial cheddar, had startling results. Researchers from the Canton Hospital in Baden, Switzerland, found that the cheddar contained only 22 percent of the omega-3 found in traditional Alp cheese (omega-3 is known to fend off fatal heart attacks). Intrigued? Quality Cheese’s website provides a rabbit hole of health information about raw-milk cheeses and Alp cheese, specifically.
To Serve and Protect
Once they leave the profession, it’s rare for cheesemakers to return to the more demanding and complicated work in the mountains—”the tradition will be lost,” warns Hostettler. That’s why she founded the organization Adopt-an-Alp three years ago with a dual mission: to bring Alp cheese to the US and to educate cheese lovers about transhumance and its integral role in creating powerful cheeses.
Here’s how it works: A shop “adopts” a creamery by purchasing at least 10 of their wheels. Participating shops then vie for a trip to Switzerland to meet cheesemakers by coming up with creative ways to promote their Alp cheeses.
Evan Talen, a manager and monger at Apertivo in Grand Rapids, Mich., joined the program last summer and is eagerly awaiting his first shipment of Alp cheese. The store adopted the Jäntzimatt creamery, which produces the particularly rare and aptly named cheese Full Moon, made only under the natural light of the full moon. Talen describes how the competition is “based around who most creatively communicates and promotes their Alp, their farm . . . the importance of the idea of transhumance, and . . . the traditions behind what [farmers] are doing.” Armed with Full Moon, the Apertivo team plans to pair the cheese with a beer that is also only made during the full moon as well as with other moon-related treats at an upcoming party.
The shops are also tasked with teaching consumers about authentic Alp cheese. Alp cheese is defined and certified by the Swiss government, Hostettler explains—only products made in the highlands during transhumance can bear the official Alpkäse logo.
And Adopt-an-Alp’s work doesn’t end with promotion and protection of Alp cheese in the US market. Last winter, the Swiss government put out guidelines for what a cheesemaker can and can’t do on an Alp—and with government guidelines comes government paperwork. “These people who go on an Alp and make cheese there, they are farmers, no more and no less, and they usually … couldn’t care less about paperwork,” Hostettler says, with a bit of exasperation. Working against the draw of the 21st-century 9-to-5, Hostettler hopes to inspire farmers to continue their family traditions despite the new regulations. Many wonder why they need to fill out forms when their ancestors have been making cheese the same way for hundreds of years, she says. Part of her job is alerting the program’s cheesemakers to resources—such as full-time consultants offered by the Swiss government—to help them adhere to the new regulations. With a more optimistic opinion of the directives than her farming compatriots, Hostettler believes that they will only improve the quality of the cheese.
So far, reception for the Adopt-an-Alp program among participating cheesemakers has been enthusiastic. On a recent trip to Switzerland, Hostettler showed a cheesemaker a photo of the NoMad Hotel’s cheese plate featuring the creamery’s hobelkäse. “She was mesmerized. She was speechless. She had tears in her eyes,” Hostettler remembers.
After discussing Alp cheese and the Adopt-an-Alp push for some time, I asked Hostettler where her passion to help expand the reach and maintain the tradition of Alp cheese comes from. “I am a purist and I just admire these people who give their all and everything,” she says. “They don’t make compromises . . . Basically, [transhumance] is like cheese itself. It seems very simple, it doesn’t consist of a hundred ingredients, but at the same time it’s very complex.” Indeed, turophiles owe a bit of their cheese plate diversity—and maybe even heart health—to the rugged work of the Swiss Alp farmers and their champion, Caroline Hostettler.
Feature Photo Credit: Caroline Hostettler