Austrian Mountain Cheese is a delicious reminder of a traditional alpine way of life.
I love the mountains, but I can’t imagine how much more I would love the mountains had I grown up there, and they were my childhood home. The idea of a childhood of spectacular scenery is envy inducing (although I’m ignoring the idea that if I had grown up in an Alpine village, I would probably pine for the bustle of a city). One thing about the grass actually being greener in the mountains is that is makes the perfect raw material for milk, and therefore also for cheese.
Alpine terrain might be a mountaineer and hill walker’s delight, but it’s not the favourite of arable farmers, and therefore it’s in rugged areas like this that we find traditions of herding and livestock farming. With the weather and landscape of the Alps being what they are, the seasonal ritual is that the herds spending the winter indoors, the spring in the valley and the summer high in the mountains on the high pastures. Very Sound of Music.
We visited towards the end of summer, when the farmers were preparing to bring the cows back down to the village before the snows arrived, it was sunny but the first chill of autumn could be felt in the air. It’s a long trek for the cows; this also means bringing the milk down the mountain on a daily basis wasn’t convenient either, especially before the widespread use of cars. So another way of preserving the rich milk was needed, and it was found in cheese.
There are 526 working alpine farms and 150 cheese producing diaries in the Voralberg region of West Austria, producing four hundred and fifty thousand kilograms of cheese a year from 40,000 cows. During the winter, when the cows are kept indoors out of the biting cold, they’re fed hay rather than fermented grass silage, which taints the milk and makes it unsuitable for cheesemaking. It’s common to find this requirement amongst careful cheesemakers; the same rules applied for Comte, 200 miles to the West in French Jura.
It’s the natural grasses and flowers of the Alps that give the milk, and so the cheese, it’s richness. The bells around the neck give a traditional background soundtrack to the scenery, and also allow the farmer to keep track of his herd. The cows grazing also keeps the grass short, an important factor in the stability of the winter snow which lessens the risk of avalanches.
We visited Apere Obere, the summer home of Barbara and Herbert Rüf, and their 3 children, 82 cows, 45 pigs, 5 goats and 7 chicken, where they make the local mountain cheese, Vorarlberger Bergkäse, which has been awarded the PDO status, in the small diary attached to their home, situated a 45 minute drive up a steeply winding road from the valley below.
Cheese is made daily, in small batches. First the milk is warmed in traditional wood-fired vats, and rennet is added to curdle it. Even though the vats are heated with wood, careful attention is paid to the temperature of the milk. Cheesemaking isn’t for the fainthearted – it’s hard work, stirring the milk by hand and gathering the curds.
The curds, formed by the action of the rennet on the milk, are then sliced with the wire whisk.
They’re gathered together in a large cloth.
They’re removed from the vat, and the whey is allowed to drain out before the curds are placed in the mould.
The cheese is then pressed, to make sure all the whey has been removed.
Identification labels are added
The cheeses are then washed in brine, ready for the maturing cellars; it’s here that the depth of flavour develops. The cheese matures on wooden boards, which help give it its taste – when new boards are bought into use they need to be stored with the old wood for a while to obtain their microbes, or the cheese sitting on them will simply go bad. The farmers sell their cheeses to Rupp, who guarantee to buy them, and can also offer technical and business advice.
Once the cheese is made it is time to clean the dairy, wash the cloths and hang them out in the mountain air to dry.
Bringing the cows safely down to the valley at the end of the summer is a time of great celebration. The farmers spend time in the summer making garlands out of paper flowers to decorate the herd as they parade pass through the village. Frequently farmers will loose a few cows in the summer, often to lightening strikes, a heavy burden to bear when you only have a small herd.
I found not only the scenery of the mountains, but also the village itself to be delightful. Surrounded by tradition, with the steep sides of the valley covered in thick forest, and the lush green of the high summer pastures visible far above, it’s not only the place to visit in winter for a winter sports holiday, but great for summer walking. Speaking of winter sports, the farmer I visited spent the cold months working in the local ski resort; so at least he gets out of the house, even if his cows don’t.
This type of traditional cheese will last for quite a while but to give it an even longer shelf life, and to add more flavours, the tradition of smoking it came about, with cheeses stored hanging over the open fire in the 10th and 11th century before chimneys were developed.
Nowadays the traditional Bregenzerwald Bergkäse can be smoked, as well as the modern processed style, inspired by the past tradition. Rupp make both Austrian and Bavarian style of processed smoked cheese (largely sold as supermarket own brand in the UK). Bavarian smoked cheeses is recognizable as it is round with a dark rind. Austrian and Bavarian smoked cheese are soft and creamy, highly adaptable so ideal for cooking with or snacking such as in the Arancini or spaghetti carbonara below.
Fuss Free Flavours was the guest of Rupp. Learn more about their cheese here.