BenGusto Makes Swiss Cheese in the Alps

In the second week of July, I hiked a little ways up the mountain towering over Bosco Gurin, a small village situated on the Italian side of the Swiss alps, to come to where I was to make alpine cheese for three days with the Azienda Agricola Arcioni Michele.  I initially embarked on this adventure hoping to learn about the production of authentic formaggio d’alpe (the cheese typical of the region of Ticino). What I got was a taste of not only proper cheese making, but true alpine living. The real, raw experience of working as a mountaineer cheese farmer.

Hiking up from Bosco to the alpeggio.

Hiking up from Bosco to the alpeggio.

The village of Bosco Gurin.

The village of Bosco Gurin.

Ruins of an old storage house for hay. Occasionally, I would go searching for remains of hay in these eroded structures with some of my fellow alpini.

Ruins of an old storage house for hay. Occasionally, I would go searching for remains of hay in these eroded structures with some of my fellow alpini.

 

One of the most peculiar parts of my visit was the interesting character of a young alpine farmer working in the alpeggio (cheese farm). I met a 24-year-old mountaineer by the name of Francesco, who was in the middle of a two month long journey around the Italian and Ticinese alps with his loyal companion, Chipa the dog. He was the embodiment of the alpine spirit. He hiked around the peak barefoot, calming the young goats, Laura’s (the owner of the small cheese company) children, and the cows. When we’d hike, Francesco would stop to show me which alpine flower eased sunburn, and which herb cured sore throat. He prefered the wild grasses and fruits to the packaged foods that Laura brought. He would talk of the past times when his village (across the Italian border about 1 hour from Bosco Gurin) lived off of what they produced, and struggled to survive during the harsh winters of isolation. I called Francesco the “Jesus of the alps”.

Francesco hiking barefoot with his dog, Chipa.

Francesco hiking barefoot with his dog, Chipa.

Mountain Alpine Flower

Francesco and I clean the older wheels of cheese.

Francesco and I clean the older wheels of cheese.

 

 

A day in the life of an alpine cheese farmer is a long one. We woke up at 5 in the morning because we had to milk the cows, the goats, and clean and prepare the laboratory for making cheese. A quick coffee (I was the only one who ate cereal at 5 am), and then it was off to work until 9:30, when we’d have breakfast. After breakfast, the milking would be over with, and we’d begin turning the goat and cow milk into alpine cheese until 3 pm. That’s when we’d stop for lunch and relax until 5 pm, when we’d have to commence round 2 of milking in order to have enough milk for tomorrow’s batch of cheese. The second milking lasted until 9 pm, when all of us seven alpini would join together for a dinner all gusto (of course, I placed myself at the head of the kitchen straight away). 

The dogs remain curled up at 5 am, as we set off to milk the cows.

The dogs remain curled up at 5 am, as we set off to milk the cows.

Enjoying swiss muesli early in the morning was the best.

Enjoying swiss muesli early in the morning was the best.

 

Making afternoon cheese. Francesco pumps the cow milk from the canteens outside into the basin in the lab.

Making afternoon cheese. Francesco pumps the cow milk from the canteens outside into the basin in the lab.

Gilberto and Michela milk the cows.

Gilberto and Michela milk the cows.

The cows line up for the football game.

The cows line up for the football game.

Some alpine "gusto" cooking is required for dinner time. Omelette with house-made cheese and stewed peperonata was on the menu.

Some alpine “gusto” cooking is required for dinner time. Omelette with house-made cheese and stewed peperonata was on the menu.

The alpini meet at the table after a long day at work.

The alpini meet at the table after a long day at work.

Besides the occasional job of scrubbing off the mold growing on the aging cheese, or traveling down the valley to collect more firewood for the furnace, the days of cheese-making generally repeat themselves. The production of Swiss formaggio is laborious, repetitive, yet an artisanal work of beauty. At the end of the day, it was not so much about the work, but the people and the lifestyle that came with it. Burning your own wood for heat. Hiking your way down the valley to reach the local grocery. Following the sounds of clanking bells to reach the goats grazing in grass, perched on a cliff above. When I taste formaggio d’alpe, I’ll be reminded of these little things, and this little world of humble simplicity. That’s what is buono. 

Wheels of Cheese

 

Chipa and Mountains

Stay tuned for episode 2 where I will actually talk about how to make your very own Swiss cheese of the Alps!

2 responses on “BenGusto Makes Swiss Cheese in the Alps

  1. Ben

    Your report is fascinating. This is a great experience for you and a treat for us to follow along . We have just returned from a tour of the Azores Islands where we got a glimpse of the mountainous landscape filled with grazing cows that must be milked twice a day for milk, cheese and other products. Cheese making is done at co -op factories.

    Gorman

    • Thank you very much, Mr. and Mrs. Reilly! I really appreciate the support. I would love to hear more about how cheese is made on the islands to compare! Perhaps I will have to take a visit..
      -Ben

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