Here, the cheese is so pure that if the wheel is yellow, you know the cows have been eating dandelions...
BREGENZERWALD - "Join us for lunch, if you dare", Theresia says as she hands me a spoon. Lunch on the Obere Falz Alp is eaten at a big, scrubbed grey table in the large room where cheese is made. There are stables on either side of the space, and through the open door there's a view of what my guidebook calls the "anthropogenic grassy hills" of the Bregenzerwald (Bregenz Forest) in western Austria, which is on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites.
The guidebook’s right: Bregenz Forest is no longer a real forest. The people who live in this area of Austria have long turned many of the wooded mountainsides into meadowland so that their cows can graze at different altitudes throughout the year. The guidebook calls this "classic three-level farming — comprehensive use of all the vegetation at different altitudes in Alpine country."
I can hear the sound of cow bells outside. Inside, the big copper cauldron that heats the milk has been polished to a high shine. With this morning’s milk Theresia Schneider has made two wheels of Alp cheese weighing 30 kilos each. She’s famous for this cheese. It is mild but not bland, salty but still very subtle in taste. Georg Schneider, Theresia’s husband, is already sitting at the table. There’s sennsuppe, which locals call seagen, for lunch today just as there is every day. Whey soup.
Sennsuppe is a byproduct of a long morning’s work during which the dairyperson has made butter and then Alp cheese. Protein-rich whey remains in the cauldron. Theresia vigorously shakes more fermented whey into the pot. It’s amazing how easily she lifts extremely heavy churns and tubs. "Luckily I don’t have back problems," she says cheerfully as she tests the consistency of the soup.
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A cheese maker in the Bregenz Forest - photo: Böhringer Friedrich
The protein makes strange-looking structures, sort of like the twists and turns of a large brain. That’s sennsuppe. It may look weird, but it tastes good — delicate and sweet. Of course I dare eat it, and Theresia acknowledges this with a pleased smile. Afterwards I sample some of her hard cheese with bread and butter. After this cheese is pressed, it’s left for three days in brine before going into the dark, cool curing chamber behind the cheese-making facility. There, it's given the time it needs to come fully into its own.
Why the cheese is so good
Bregenzerwald is famous for its Alp cheese. That's because in this region cows only eat grass or fresh hay and very little, if any, concentrated feed. They eat none of the hay that farmers store in wrapped bales, which can ferment under the plastic and is regarded by cheese makers as substandard feed. Cheese is made in the traditional way and cleverly marketed: Vorarlberger Bergkäse, a regional specialty cheese from this Austrian province of Vorarlberg, has become a valuable brand. But the producers I’m visiting do their own marketing. They consistently aim to make exceptional artisanal products, and the quality of their cheeses is far above average.
I had my first piece of Alp cheese today on Rehenbergvorsäss, just north of Egg and about a half hour away from Theresia Schneider’s place. The wooden homes and stables of this alpine village are scattered across the hill. Higher up is a wood-shingled chapel where the 14 families who live here gather on Sunday to say a rosary together, followed by some socializing.
Nilsson the dairyman, who is from Brazil, watches me closely as I sample the 11-month-old mountain cheese from the curing chamber. Only after I’ve praised its rich, complex taste does he try some himself and nod agreement with my verdict.
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In the Bregenz Forest - Photo: TijsB
Nilsson speaks with an amusing mixture of Portuguese and the guttural German spoken by Brengenzerwald natives. He started out as an assistant dairyman and worked his way up, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. No TV, no Internet: there’s no signal on the Vorsäss. Being a dairyman is a job that requires staying power and a lot of flair because milk has moods, he says.
Milk is different every day because circumstances aren't constant. The weather changes, every meadow is different, and so what the cows eat varies slightly. Moreover, when heated, milk reacts in different ways. Nilsson puts his arm deep into the cauldron, testing to see whether the milk has already become fresh cheese. Then, with eyes closed, he decides whether to give it more time.
No two wheels alike
Every piece of mountain cheese is one-of-a-kind. That’s the biggest lesson I learned on this stretch of my trip. A piece of butter can, for example, taste intensely of wild garlic if the cows grazed in a meadow full of it the day before. Every wheel of Alp cheese is nothing less than a snapshot of what the cows were grazing on and the aromas that have developed during aging. Winemakers speak of terroir — the opposite of industrialization, which is about churning out exactly the same product, today, tomorrow, and the day after that.
The cheese produced by Leo Feuerstein on the Vordere Niedere — nearly a day’s hike from Rehenbergvorsäss — has a particularly delicate taste imbued with the flavors of the flora on that mountain: coltsfoot (tussilago farfara), lady’s mantle, alpine anemone, marsh marigold, trollius. The butter is golden yellow right now because the cows are eating so many dandelions. Leo, a slim, agile man of 60, runs a mountain restaurant with his wife Irene. They serve schnitzels and wurst to excursionists in Lederhosen and T-shirts that say "Woodstock der Blasmusik" (The Woodstock of Brass Bands) and who drink ungodly quantities of Radler — a mix of beer and lemon-lime. The cheese wrapped in cellophane in the self-service area looks at first glance like what you might find on any old supermarket shelf.
But as it turns out, Leo Feuerstein is a particularly conscientious maker of Bregenzerwald Alp cheese — and his is stellar. This summer he will produce from about 35,000 liters of milk some 3,500 kilos of Alp cheese that he will let age for up to 18 months — 12 months longer than most others, so that the character of the cheese is multiplied by the time factor. Extraordinary efforts, in other words, equal extraordinary results.
Leo’s cheese is full, mild and creamy, wonderfully ripe, never sharp. The taste remains pleasantly in your mouth for a long time after you eat a piece. Each wheel is a genuine individual expression of this landscape and the cheese maker.
"Ja," says Leo. "Each one is unique, one of a kind."