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Musings on Alpine cheesemaking and singing

Musings on Alpine cheesemaking and singing

Musings on Alpine cheesemaking and singing

At the Alpe Untere Falz Alpine pasture dairy, Astrit is called "Asterix" by the Bregenzerwald locals who have a hard time believing that Astrit could possibly be a man’s name.

Milk:Though I am in Vienna, I can’t help wondering about the quality of today’s batch of milk far away in the Bregenzerwald. I had been sitting at my computer completing my bookkeeping, sending invoices and doing some banking, but now I’m lying on the couch. It’s evening time, though still bright out and today’s weather was hot and humid. Around half past six, the dark clouds that had gathered above the city broke and a heavy downpour ensued. The fresh, humid air was a welcome relief. Flat on my back on the couch, my thoughts drift once more to the far-away cows on the Alpine pasture. I wonder whether they enjoyed the rain before they were brought in? From experience, I know that on humid days the cows are much easier to milk if the rain catches them before they get back to the barn. Cows, like humans, become less tense or anxious when the air cools. Relaxed cows are also easier to milk than cows that are annoyed by the heat and the flies. No, I decide, it would already have been too late. At six o’clock the cows are already in the barn. From my window, I peer out at the cityscape and the streets of Vienna’s 9th district. But in my minds eye I see the barn: The daydream is vivid and real and I am struck by how far apart the two worlds, city and Alpine pasture, truly are. And yet they are also closely connected. Both are a part of me.

Singing: From 1999 to 2003, I took singing lessons. After the first few lessons, I realised that I wasn’t actually all that interested in singing songs. Why, I asked myself, did I want to sing? I always perceived my inner self as very closed off from the world. There was me and there was the world. Separate and apart. Of course I knew that I existed in the world, but the trueness of the connection escaped me. Years earlier, I began to sing during a winter walk at dusk, louder and louder until the singing echoed from the trees and at the same time filled me up completely. The connection I felt at that moment was exactly what I had been searching for. My teacher, Wolfgang Dangl, developed a form of improvisation with me, whereby the awareness of one’s own body became the starting point for song. The realisations that I had during this process led to a sound, a song. And this sound, this singing, changed the structure within. In turn, these changes inside changed the singing once again. Or perhaps it stopped and started again? Either way, singing became more and more a sate of awareness, of perception of movements inside and outside. The song itself could never be repeated. If I liked what I was singing and wanted to continue the next time, I realised that it couldn’t be done. Each time was different. Every moment is composed of the tiniest movements. Close attention to these movements results in a song that is appropriate and feels right in that moment. I have come to realise that every moment has its own beauty, whether it is light or heavy, sad or joyful. Even the moment of desperation that finds its true tone becomes something coherent. The tone, when it succeeds, is always a surprise and it happens without my influence.

Cheesemaker: Over the years, the experiences I had while singing have become more and more interwoven with the experiences I’ve had working at the Alpine dairy. There is a daily rhythm at the Alpine pasture, which is determined by the grazing of the cows, milking and cheese-making. But in spite of this rhythm, every day is also different. Each day, the milk is different depending on the weather and the diet of the cows. I work with flat-bottomed tubs (called Gebse) made from wood. Milk that is garnered in the evening is poured into the tubs, fresh and warm, so that the lactic acid bacteria, stimulated by the bacterial culture that forms in the wood of the tubs, can develop overnight. Returning in the morning, pre-matured milk awaits. From this batch, I first skim off the cream for butter. Then the pre-matured, skimmed milk goes into a cheese vat and is mixed with the fresh morning milk to be processed into cheese. As a dairyman, I have to observe such processes carefully: What does the milk smell and taste like in the morning and what is the consistency of the cream? How does the milk thicken and how does it behave when cut? What is the colour of the whey and how quickly does the curd separate from the whey? Does the curd become compact rapidly during the second heating stage, i.e. is it ready to be removed? What does the cut curd look like as well as the “Seagen” that remains in the vat?  I make decisions based on my perception of these signs: Must I promote or slow down the growth of the bacteria? Every cheesemaker who works with wooden tubs develops his own way of creating balance in the milk. Each dairy farmer has his own relationship with the milk and experiences what works and what doesn’t. As a consequence, two different cheesemakers could never make the same cheese, even if they wanted to. Milk and cheese are very much alive. They are composed of many small, tiny movements. Because they are slightly different every moment, their development is always subject to present conditions. Especially if you have the wisdom to let them and the patience to wait, living things have a tendency to develop into something good. Over the years, I have noticed that the same forces that affect milk also affect my life: lightness and heaviness, freshness and staleness, anxiousness or relaxation.

31 May 2019: We are gathered around a table made from light maple wood. The tree grew down by the stream, which we can see from our kitchen window. It was crafted by one of the farmers who owns the Alpine pasture. This table is one of the few pieces of furniture to have survived a fire unscathed in 2004. Lunch is being served and we are gathered together: The cook, Antonia, the shepherds, Alfred and Sefftone (Bregenzerwald dialect for Josef Anton), the junior dairy farmer, Astrit, the junior-junior dairy farmer, Manuel, and me. First we eat the “dairyman’s soup” and Sefftone praises its good taste. Antonia asks what I do to prevent curd to remain in it?

I answer cheekily in dialect that I dive into the cheese vat to pick out even the tiniest bits by hand. Manuel and Antonia keep the joke going to great amusement. Astrit, who speaks perfect German but does not understand dialect, goes into his own world. Astrit is an actor. Some farmers were so flabbergasted that a man (especially one with such a thick beard) could be called “Astrit” that they prefer to call him “Asterix” instead. Astrit is from Kosovo. He grew up with cows. During a visit to my Viennese cheese cellar, an unquenchable desire to visit the Alpine dairy seized him. Would he be able to visit the Alpine dairy to help me make cheese? Perhaps he could learn something that he can then apply in Kosovo with his relatives, some of whom still have cows. Astrit and I had been at the Alpine dairy since five in the morning, and Manuel joined us a little later. He is a service manager at the ‘Mraz und Sohn’ Viennese restaurant and wanted to spend a few days helping to make the cheese that he serves to his guests.

While Antonia attends to the household, Alfred and Sefftone concentrate on their work with the cows. Sefftone, a retired carpenter who has always worked as a part-time farmer, is in his early seventies. My father once bought a cow from him, which we were very happy with. Now Sefftone is with us for the third spring as a cattleman. Alfred, in his early thirties, is an organic farmer with nine cows, all of which have joined us at the Alpe Untere Falz Alpine pasture. This is his fifth or sixth time. This spring, Antonia, in her late seventies, will have been with us at the Untere Falz pasture for about 15 years. She is an Alpine farmer through and through. Every year we look forward to our time together. Antonia is good humoured, knows how to talk to everybody and helps the colourful bunch to get along. Old stories connect me with her because her father had a stable full of goats in Andelsbuch, including a billy goat, which we always visited when one of our two female goats was in heat. As kids, we took the goat by the rope and set off, passing through ten barbed wire fences in the Andelsbuch fields. It was a grand adventure. Old Mr. Gmeiner, who had a dark beard and a barn full of goats, was always a bit scary looking. Each time we visited, we were grateful when the male goat did its business as quickly as possible so we could leave. Sometime in the 1950s, as a 14-year-old, Antonia was employed for a few weeks in the large, meticulous, and strictly run household of my grandmother. She likes to recount how much she learned from my grandmother during her short stay. In the afternoon, there are visitors: my wife and the children, Astrit’s wife and son from Vienna, and Ms. Caze from Berlin. I met Ms. Caze, a Berlin furniture designer who has her furniture made by Anton Mohr in Andelsbuch, at “Cheese Berlin,” which is a cheese fair for artisanal raw-milk cheeses. For the next few days, the women and the children breathe life into the area in front of the mountain hut, which faces the Winterstaude and Bullerschkopf mountains in the afternoon. After the day’s work is done, we join them until it’s time to go inside. My time in the Alps lasts just twelve days. During this short time in May until the beginning of June, the cows are driven to the lower pasture to graze on fresh spring grass. Then they move to the temporary summer settlements of Rehenberg, Eggatsberg and Hammeratsberg near Egg. During the cows’ time at the temporary summer settlement, the grass on the Alpine pasture grows back. So the cows come up again for the peak season at the beginning of July. During this time, a different Alpine dairyman is in charge. Back in Vienna, I dedicate myself once more to my business, “Anton Macht Ke:s.” Though my time at the Alpine dairy is short, I’m grateful each and every time I return. Coming back helps me to keep my stories straight.

Maturation:My cheese cellar is located in the “Kipferlhaus,” a medieval building behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral where, according to legend, the Kipferl (a traditional yeast bread referred to as Gipfele in Vorarlberg) was invented during the Siege of Vienna. Inside this cellar, I let the young cheeses mature. There are wheels of cheese from the Untere Falz, from Rehenberg, from the Alpine dairy in Egg, from the Kriechere Alpine dairy in Bezau and even some from the Hof/Messmerreuthe Alpine dairy in Egg. Regretfully, the Kriechere and Hof/Messmerreuthe dairies are now closed. The oldest wheels of cheese in my cellar are four years old and have developed a distinctive crystalline structure. At the markets where I sell the cheeses, I offer seven different stages of maturity. Each stage of maturity is a snapshot of one and the same cheese. At each moment of its maturation, the cheese has something specific to offer. As people visit my stand, they sample for themselves which type of cheese is right for them. Right they are.

Author: Anton Sutterlüty
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2020