Have you ever wondered what actually goes into making cheese--beyond picking out your favourite at the grocery store or dell? I was curious to know more. So when I was invited by a seventh-generation cheese maker to overnight at his Alpine dairy and get up at 5am to learn the ropes, of course I said "Wow, it's a deal!"
The late afternoon train to Rigi Staffel was the start of my cheese-making journey. From the station it was a scenic 20-minute hike on the yellow signposted Wanderweg to Toni Franz. The alpenglow over the 320 peaks was an ideal way to begin my night on the mountain. After arriving and unloading my pack, I was given directions: "Go with Denise to pick up the milk canisters arriving from the Kaltbad train station." Denise, a Zurich city resident, had signed up for the summer job--requiring a 24/7, all-round commitment--because she always wanted to work on an Alp.
Straight to work
The four-wheel drive up to the Kulm summit of 1,800m (5,400 ft) was fun and bumpy. We located the milk canisters on the open flatbed attached to the front of the Mt Rigi cogwheel train. Together, Denise and) lifted the 10 40-litre (10-gallon) canisters onto the truck. Then Denise gingerly drove the four-wheel truck back down the mountain.
Once back at the dairy, where the cheese is processed and aged, we unloaded the milk canisters into a huge 1,300-litre copper vessel. Then we began a lengthy and exacting hygiene cleaning process. Everything we had touched and used was completely cleaned. In short, everything from the milk canisters to the stainless steel utensils and the wooden boards that the cheese is aged on, was cleaned multiple times, using lots of water and different disinfectants.
I was curious to learn how the financial side of making cheese in the Alps works. Toni Franz is responsible for feeding and housing over 31 cows, all from different owners. In exchange for these services, he receives eight litres of milk per cow per day. By working the milk into butter and Alpen cheese, he generates about four times the value of the milk alone. But the reward is more than financial. "It's all about the passion and not the time you put into things," as he answered one of my "city guy" questions.
My 5am iPhone alarm shook me out of a nice scenic dream, which I immediately forgot. To ensure nobody had to wake me, I was the first to get up and wander outside. I could see light climb over the Alp...