Katie Connors

Katie Connors works in publishing in New York City. She's a bit of a book hoarder and has been known to miss her train stop when immersed in a really good read. You can find her on twitter: @katconnors.

Curds and Whey

It was June, but still cool when I left the university town of Fribourg to hike to a dairy farm called Rinderalp, which overlooked the Simme and the Diemtig Valley in the Bernese Oberland. You don’t have to travel to Switzerland to know that the Swiss are serious about their cheese, and Rinderalp had been passed down through the generations to the current owner, a man named Gotti. It combined three things I felt embodied the Swiss experience: cheese, tradition and tranquility.

One of my favorite destinations when I travel is either to farmers markets or to the actual sources of the food. A country’s indigenous produce or hand-crafted fare intrigues me, as well as the lifestyles of the people working at the farm. There’s insight into a culture based the way food is harvested, how it’s prepared and even purchased. But there’s something else I uncovered at Rinderalp. I found art in the process of cheese making.

At the top of the mountain stands a dark-timber lodge with two entrances to the house, surrounded by cows grazing in the meadow. Life here seemed surreal without traffic. I felt I had found the most peaceful place on earth. There are gorgeous views of the surrounding country, which include farmhouses, lakes, and white roads winding along mountain crests and down the valleys.

With no direct transit, you hike from the train or bus stop to the farm. This isn’t for the easily deterred tourist, but it does give you a taste of life on the farm since they have no direct transit either. People are very active in Switzerland as well; in fact, the morning before, Gotti and a few others carried mattresses up that very hike for my friends and me to use. The thought of this made my backpack seem feather light.

Part of me wanted to throw down by backpack and stay there the rest of my life, while the other part made me question if this much silence could drive me near insanity. This wasn’t just a house or barn on top of a mountain; this was a livelihood — a way of life. To live this life, you had to be committed to what you were making. There was no take-out or easy way to get groceries. You chose partial isolation.

Gotti met us at the house. He had grey-blue eyes and a medium frame. There was something calming in his exterior with his faint smile and deliberate movement. A twenty-something girl also worked at the dairy farm during its summer season. She cooked for the guests and helped Gotti make the cheese. When I walked inside, the front entrance led directly to the kitchen. She smiled, but didn’t talk, and continued fixing dinner. To the right of the kitchen was a separate room where the cheese was made each day.

An iron pot of macaroni and mild, Alpine cheese sat in the middle of the table; the cheese made at the farm. Alongside was a serving of homemade apple sauce, the ultimate comfort food on a cool evening. Gotti even started a fire in the stove to heat the dining room. To them though, 40 degrees Fahrenheit was temperate weather so the fire was for our sakes. We sat at a wooden table on a bench with a view of the Alps and had warm orange-spiced tea in a hand-made clay pitcher.

During the winter months, the cows are brought off the mountain to escape the harsh weather. Gotti also moves back into town. Once the snow melts, visitors come and pay for lodging and food, which is extremely reasonable in an otherwise expensive country, and they get to see first-hand what life is like on a dairy farm.

After dinner, I walked as the sun set. There wasn’t much else to do and I wanted to take in more of their everyday views. Though it was summer, there were a few light patches of snow that hadn’t melted yet, which contrasted strangely with the array of wildflowers in the fields. Even the surrounding cows seemed lulled into a deeper state of relaxation in the setting sun. These were sturdy cows with glossy coats of light brown colors like chocolate milk. Gotti took exceptionally good care of his animals, and in return, the animals seemed much happier.

The sun rose at 5 a.m. as I lay in bed a bit longer, listening to the Swiss-German I could hear them speaking in the kitchen below our room. It was singsong-y, with a lulling melody of high and low notes. After stretching, I made myself get out from underneath the warm blankets. Downstairs, breakfast, was already laid out: multi-grain rolls, raspberry jam, hazelnuts, coffee and orange juice. Above the dining room door, a sign said das gras wächst auch nicht schneller wenn man daran zieht, which translates to “The grass does not grow any faster if you pull it.” I took it as a sign to eat slowly.

After I ate breakfast, Gotti offered to show me how they make cheese. The cows had been milked that morning when the sun rose, and there were 40 liters of fresh milk in a giant mixer swirling round and round. After the milk reached the desired consistency and temperature, he drained the excess liquid to keep just the curds.

The curds were transported to another part of the room, where they were further drained before being transported to molds. The curds were very mild, but would reach their seasoned flavors once they sat in storage. The cheese we ate for breakfast was from the previous year.

After watching the cheese-making process for about an hour and a half, Gotti pointed us down a trail that led straight down the mountain. He told us that after the summer season, there’s a festival in Switzerland when the cows come down from the mountains. People come out to cheer at the parade of cows and the farmers throw cheese into the crowd to celebrate. I imagined the crowds, and how happy they must be after a beautiful season as they celebrated their hard work.

Walking down the same trail, I felt I was leaving another world. Time seemed to move more slowly at Rinderalp. Thought was put into every detail and there was an organic tranquility from the surrounding natural beauty. I found what I never expected in a wooden house on top of a mountain instead of a museum in their urban capital — art.