Before I tasted “Alpage”, (seasonally produced cheese made from alpine-grazed milk), my childhood memory of Swiss cheese was a square of cheese with holes in it usually paired with ham for sandwiches.
Then I tasted the Alpkase cheese at Piazza Italian Market as part of its “Adopt-an Alp” promotion. It was fresh and creamy and piqued my curiosity about this type of cheese made in Switzerland. Historically, many cheeses in Alpine countries were produced via the principle of “transhumance”. As the summer sun warmed the slopes and fresh green grass sprouted, the cows and their herdsmen left their valley homes in search of higher feeding areas. At the end of the day, cows and their farmers retired to small huts for the night throughout Switzerland’s Alps.
Piazza’s adopted Alp for 2019 is Alp Trosen, located in the Sankt Gallen canton of northeast Switzerland. This alp is rich in history, for the Silk Road once passed through Alp Trosen and there is historic evidence of human habitation on this alp long before Marco Polo passed through. Each summer, Jakob Knaus, Sr., leaves his home in the valley below, hikes up the mountain with his herd of cows to live in a one room stone hut built into the hill. Every evening for nine weeks, he sleeps in the loft above the stables below. The hut has a solar panel for electricity and a government-required water filter; otherwise, his summer home has no modern amenities. On the site of this humble 500-year-old hut, transhumance and cheesemaking continue the tradition begun over 2,000 years ago. Knaus and an assistant use a copper kettle over a wood fire to make Alpkäse cheese by hand once a day, every day and the result is a cheese full of flavor. The milk comes from his herd of cows that is exclusively eating wild grasses, herbs and flowers and drinking fresh water from the streams cascading down the Alpine slopes. This is beyond organic and the resulting flavor of the cheese is a pure expression of the Alp and its microclimate. It is truly a beautiful cheese from a beautiful place.
The production of Alpage has increased over the last five years, arguably due to the Adopt-an-Alp program. This initiative was created by native born Swiss Caroline and Daniel Hostettler of Quality Cheese, Inc. They are passionately committed to generating awareness and appreciation for the endangered practice of transhumance and to highlight “real” Swiss cheeses. To date, over 100 retailers throughout the United States have participated in the Adopt-an-Alp promotion. Each store adopts an Alp and agrees to purchase a certain allotment of cheese in advance from an alpage cheese producer. Stores are encouraged to think of creative ways to promote the cheese and for the past four years, Quality Cheese has selected three winners to accompany them to Switzerland and to visit the stores’ adopted Alps.
This year, Piazza won the “Adopt an Alp” promotion contest for the second time. As the Director for Special Projects, I was the store’s representative and joined the other winners for a week’s tour hosted by the Hostettlers of the four Alps adopted by the winning stores. Our visit to Alp Trosen began by meeting Lucia Knaus, Knaus Sr.’s daughter-in-law, at the family’s home in the valley. I told Lucia I was an architect and how much I admired the design of her beautifully crafted Swiss chalet styled home, especially the decorative window trim. She beamed with pride as she told me her husband built it himself from trees cut in their own forest!
Lucia’s husband had just moved the cows to the higher Alp so she drove us up through breathtaking scenery as far as you could see of granite peaks with a layer of snow down to the green slopes below. We found the Knaus herd of cows happily spread out among the grazing areas and some were enjoying lounging on a patch of snow that from a distance resembled an ice rink! The cows all had names and were very happy in the company of human strangers. I reached out to scratch one cow under her neck as I would my cat and the cow ecstatically moved her head left and right as her cowbell rang joyfully. When I moved away to join my fellow “Alpeneers” my new “bestie” attempted to follow me for the rest of the tour!
Even though this was a busy workday for the Knaus’ and their worker, Lucia graciously treated our group to a midday meal of cheese and cured meats from their cows, of course. With the first bite of cheese, scents of grass, herbs and milk all combined to create a delicious treat. What is amazing about Alpage is that the daily production of cheese differs in taste from the previous one-the taste depends upon the cow’s daily meal of grass, herbs, and flowers and the proportions of each “course” of her meal. This is organic food at the highest level.
As we left the cows contently grazing in their picture perfect Alpine surroundings, the melodic sound of their cowbells followed us down the mountain. Each farmer’s cowbells have a distinctive sound so he/she can recognize it as the cows prepare to come in at the end of the day for milking. I came away with a renewed respect for this ancient method of making cheese and grateful that I can purchase Alpage over 4,000 miles away at Piazza Italian Market. If you haven’t tasted this cheese yet, visit Piazza for a sample and it will be hard for you to leave without a purchase. Most importantly, you will be helping a farm family in Switzerland keep their tradition of transhumance alive.
The “Adopt-an-Alp” program was created by Caroline Hostettler of Quality Cheese and it is officially supported by Schweizerischer Alpwirtschaftlicher Verband (SAV), (Swiss Society of Alp Economy), a Swiss government agency for protecting and marketing Alp products. For more information, visit here.
All cheeses sold through the Adopt-an-Alp program are exclusively imported by Mifroma and distributed by Atalanta Corp World’s Best Cheeses (WBC). Piazza Italian Market offers Alp Trosen’s Alpkase and Sbrinz AOP, another cheese made in Switzerland.
Jennifer Martella has pursued her dual careers in architecture and real estate since she moved to the Eastern Shore in 2004. Her award winning work has ranged from revitalization projects to a collaboration with the Maya Lin Studio for the Children’s Defense Fund’s corporate retreat in her home state of Tennessee.