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