Mühle-Hub Alpine Cheesemaking

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„An artist of a thousand trades“, that’s what Franz Michael Felder, the Bregenzerwald’s most influential farmer, social reformer and writer, called a local dairyman in one of his books from the year 1867. And still today, it requires a wide range of skills to master what dairyman Josef Waldner does every day. This is particularly true for the months spent on the summer pastures up in the mountains, where the trained motor and auto body mechanic lives and produces the region’s typical hard cheese from June to September. Most of all, it requires knowledge and self-reliance. It is not like dairyman was on the top of Waldner’s list of favourite professions. Yet after a few years in hospitality and some time assisting a dairyman on his summer pasture, he took a course in alpine dairy farming – and liked it. In 2012, he started working at Mühle-Hub dairy in Egg. This is where he spends the winter months, from October to mid-May, making the region’s typical Alpine cheese, Tilsit cheese and Hornkäse (horn cheese), a cheese made from milk of horn-bearing cows only.

The processes of cheesemaking are still the traditional ones, be it down in the valley or up on the mountain. The circumstances, however, are different. Making cheese on the mountain, under ever changing conditions, is challenging, but the skill and knowledge gained in this process is of great value back in the valley. Here, at the Mühle-Hub dairy, where cheese is only ever made by hand, Waldner also passes on his know-how in special cheesemaking classes.

The winter workplace: Mühle-Hub dairy, Egg, 560m above sea level

Mühle-Hub is a cooperative dairy. Seven days a week, Josef Waldner makes cheese from the milk that the coop members bring to the 100-year-old building. Following tradition, he heats the milk in a 500-litre copper kettle over log fire. Using all his senses, his eyes, hands and ears, he finds the exact right moments to add rennet, to skim and drain the curd, to keep temperatures right and textures on point. His tools for moving and forming the curd are a curd harp, an agitator and a special egg whip called Wobel. When the curd has set, a big cheesecloth is used to lift it from the kettle. This is an art in itself, a gesture performed with virtuosity and vigour: The cloth is strained over a bar, two corners safely secured in the dairyman’s mouth, then hoisted onto the work surface and pressed into the cheese form. From adding rennet to taking the curd from the cattle, two hours have passed. 1,200 litres of milk yield four wheels of cheese, each about 25 to 30kg. As it is ageing, the cheese is stored and looked after by coop members. They wash it and turn it regularly before it is ready to be sold (online or in the dairy on Saturday mornings).

The summer workplace: Ostergunten Alpine pasture, 1,400m above sea level

Bringing cattle up to the mountain pastures in summer has always been an essential part of the process of cheesemaking in the Bregenzerwald. So every summer, Waldner takes his young family, 30 cows and four horses and leads them over a steep path up to Ostergunten, an alpine pasture in the municipality of Egg that can only be reached on foot. Now it’s all on him – looking after animals, water, firewood, pastures. The cows feed on a great variety of grasses and wildflowers on two levels, Unteralpe and Oberalpe. The higher they can go, the better the grass – and the resulting milk and cheese. These fluctuations in the qualities of the milk, and rapid shifts in outside temperatures, make Waldner’s job tricky. It takes a lot of intuition and experience to navigate the field. Yes, there are technical tools like thermometers and watches that you can rely on for precision. Yet when it comes to combining all the elements of the process, when it comes to making decisions and choices, nothing can replace the experience of a human. So in every step of the process, the dairyman makes choices, giving his job, giving himself and his product –cheese – life.

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Straining the cheese cloth over the bar and the two corners safely secured in the mouth is a special skill of a dairyman.

Horn cheese: A special treat

The milk for the Horn cheese originates from cows with horns exclusively. Six farmers of the cooperative provide it and bring it to the dairy, where it is processed separately from the regular milk. The first night, the milk is stored to set in traditional wooden tubs (Gebsen), made from local fir wood by coopers in the nearby Laternsertal valley and the village of Hittisau (Küferei Lässer). Staves are planed by hand and bound by wood or metal hoops. Using wood that has been cut in winter will result in tubs being more tight and leak-proof. The tubs are wide and rather low, making it easy to skim the cream, while its material, resinous wood, creates the perfect environment for the milk’s natural maturing and also adds to its taste. Horn cheese not only has a special taste, it is also said to be more digestible thanks to the horn milk’s different nutritive properties. Horn cheese is available in various stages of maturity, from 10 or 12 to 22 months of age.

Dairymen play an essential, valuable role in the cultivation and conservation of the landscape while also captivating the essence of animal and nature in an edible product: a wheel of cheese.