Switzerland’s biggest alpine cheese dairy

An inspiring model for all alpine regions

by Heini Hofmann

On the coats of arms of the Canton Uri, the Uri-bull is proudly presenting itself on agolden ground which is recognised as a symbol for the sun. However, the spicy alp cheese is the domain of the more quiet producers in the background, the good dairy cows. With the white juice from green grass 200 tons of alp cheese are produced every summer by Uri´s alpine farms. The largest alpine dairy is the one on the Alp Urnerboden.

250 years ago Grison’s scholar of nature Placidus Spescha succeeded in awakening the alpine confidence by postulating a usage of the Alps, not only as a living area but also as an economic area in order “to  increase exports and reduce imports and hereby keep the income and the money within the Alps.” Modern alpine economy is the present-day answer to this early message.

Well-tried Alp tradition

In the Canton of Uri, in the heart of Switzerland, the transhumance still works according to traditional but proven forms of cultivation. While in the northern part of the canton the owner or a family member looks after the cattle according to the Alemannic tradition, in the southern part of the canton community alpine dairy farming, carried out by employed herdsmen, is more common.
While in other regions the cattle is mostly staying on the same alp throughout the summer, in the lower part of the canton the dairy families travel like nomads from one Stafel to another, e.g. at Urnerboden: Here the alp season lasts 14 weeks from mid-June. The first four weeks the families remain on the “Boodä”, the lower grazing area, then they go to the upper Stafels for seven weeks and at last for three weeks to the Urnerboden, again. That means that they change location three times!
The Uri alpine farmers are organised in two alp corporations and one Alpine cheese cooperative, a kind of self-help organisation. Around one third of the area of the Canton of Uri are Alpine pastures and thus the backbone of agriculture in Tell’s country. Most of them belong to the alp corporations. Over the last years about 5,700 heads of livestock have spent the summer on one of the 64 corporation alps, together with 8,500 sheep and 1,000 goats.

No sheltered workshop

The Uri Corporation is convinced that, despite sticking to their principles, the Alpine economy is anything but a sheltered workshop, museum-like in character. On the contrary, it is of vital importance for agriculture and tourism alike and has to keep up with the latest developments in these areas. In response to the changing environment a kind of squaring the circle is required, namely sensible ecological and economic solutions in line with the market.
Through such sustainable usage and maintenance of the Alpine pastures “furnished” with the livestock, the alp farmers, working at the most beautiful although sweat-inducing work place, create a most notable side effect which is the conservation of the Alpine cultural landscape that nobody would like to do without and which is a boost for tourism. One concrete outcome, materialised Alpine diligence so to speak, is the spicy alp cheese. For its production a pioneering solution has been found, compatible with the tradition on the Urnerboden.

Switzerland’s biggest dairy alp

The Urnerboden, located east of the Klausen Pass at 1,450 meters above sea level, is Switzerland’s largest cattle-alp; it comprises around 50 Alpine farms. But on the “Boodä” (lower grazing area) there are not only pastures, but also a small, year-round-inhabited village that politically belongs to the municipality of Spiringen. In winter, when the Klausen Pass is closed, only about 25 people live here, while in summer about 300, along with about 1,200 cows on Alp Urnerboden and up to 700 cattle on the Gemsfairenalp and Alp Fiseten.
We hit on the idea of building a large, powerful Alpine cheese dairy because of the same considerations as those postulated by Placidus Spescha in the 19th century. Today Anton Gisler, president of Alpkäserei Urnerboden AG, puts it like this: “Secure jobs in the Alpine farming and in the food industry and thus promoting active transhumance, increase the added value and keep it in the Schächen valley and in the region as well as providing perspectives for regional tourism by preservation of the cultural landscape.”

From nil to a hundred

Project sponsor is the Urnerboden cooperative of Alpine dairy farmers with about 50 farming families; it is supported by the canton and the Corporation Uri. Although this large cheese manufacturing plant is equipped with the latest technology, cheese making remains nevertheless an artisan skill that requires lots of experience and instinctive feeling, and of course also the quality of the (silage-free) milk has to be impeccable.
In 2014, the first year of operation, this big brand-new plant had to accelerate from zero to full capacity immediately. But master cheesemaker Martin Stadelmann and his team had everything under control. In short, the new “Ürnerbeedäler“ succeeded at the first attempt. The dairy shop for direct marketing, led by Michaela Jost (meanwhile the wife of the master cheesemaker) was well received.
But producing cheese is no stroll in the park: The working day in the Alpine dairy Urnerboden starts at 5 o’clock and ends sometimes only at 11 at night. The milk is delivered from the herdsmen themselves. Before being sucked from the cans or tanks, a milk sample must be taken. For the cheesemaking the warmed raw milk is mixed with rennet, then the curd is cut with the cheese harp, so that curd granules are formed. This is followed by extraction, filling, pressing, and salt bathing. The finished wheels are stored to mature in the cheese cellar at 14.5 degrees Celsius and a humidity of 95 per cent. Through intensive care, i.e. turning and greasing up, their colour changes from pale to dark yellow.

Ambitious goals

The processing of up to one million kilos of silage-free alp milk into Alpine cheese, alpmutschli, alp-raclette, and alp-yogurt is planned per alp-period. The fact that around 600,000 kilos of milk were already processed in 2015, the second alp summer, shows that the target is within reach. The main and prime products accounting for over 90 per cent are a spicy semi-hard cheese to about 7 kg (with sales from a ripening period of 3 months to 1 year) and mutschli (small loaves) to around 1 kilo (with sales from 3 weeks ripening period).
The benchmark of the Urnerboden Pioneers is ambitious: They want to produce the best alp cheese. But judging will be done by target groups and markets: consumers (locals and tourists), wholesale distributors, retailers, gastronomy and direct customers. The first signals are promising. And another likable marginal note: Some independent dairy farmers, in particular those from the upper Stafels, continue making their own cheeses, so that – despite the large cheese manufacturing plant having become necessary – a certain product biodiversity and a balance between Goliath and the Davids will remain on the Urnerboden.    •
Further information at: www.alpkaeserei-urnerboden.ch
(Translation Current Concerns)

At the first cockcrow

HH. A traditional legend says why the Urnerboden is actually situatied on the Glarus side of the Klausen Pass. Uri and Glarus fought over this lush pasture. Since no agreement was reached, they decided to start running on the date of the equinox at the first cock-crow from Uri and Glarus each a runner towards the top of the pass. Where they meet, the border should be.
Of course, both sides tried to cheat with cock doping. While the Glarners chose a fat cock and fed him hard, the Urner let a puny cock extra go hungry. No wonder: While the latter already crowed at the crack of dawn, the Glarus cock kept calm until noon. Therefore the Uri runner (of rank) had long crossed the top of the pass and had already passed the Urnerboden, when both met.
Thus, the border was set. But the Glarus runner beseeched his competitor, that he might still cede a piece of pasture to him. But the Uri refused. As the Glarner begged further, the Uri let soften: “I let get you as much land as you can carry me back uphill“. No sooner said than done. The brave Glarus panting dragged the Uri – until he collapsed and died. Since then, the ”Boodä” belongs to Uri ……

Old traditions

HH. Even today the so called “Betruf” (alpine call for prayers) on the Uri Alps is a fondly maintained tradition. Evening after evening, until the last alp day and in all weathers, the Alpine herdsman calls from a hill the monophonic recitative in a dialectal dyed High German through a wooden funnel, called “Volle”. Lyrics and melody vary from alp to alp. And for each alp an alp reeve is determined who is responsible for the compliance of the alp rules. Before the alp procession he must take the traditional oath with burning candles and in front of a crucifix.
Also wild hay making is an ancient custom. From mid-July each “Korporationsbürger” (corporation citizen) may win as much hay as he wants in the steep grassy strips above the pastures belonging to the corporation. An exhausting, dangerous work! The harvest festival of the Alpine herdsmen is the “Sennenchilbi”, always on the second Sunday of October in Bürglen, with a worship, flag waving and “Chilbi” dance.

Grass – milk – cheese

HH. A cow’s daily intake consists of approximately 100 kg grass and 50 litres of water (during the winter that changes to 20 kg of hay and 100 litres of water). A lot of fluids are required because a cow produces up to 20 kg of saliva on a daily basis. In order to receive one litre of milk, 500 litres of blood have to be circulating through the udder’s gland tissue. A cow’s daily milk production ranges from 20 to 35 litres depending on its race, nutrition and the climate it lives in.
Alpine cheese is being produced during the summer months, using fresh milk from cows that feed on savoury grasses and herbs 1400 to 2000 metres above sea level, are able to move around freely and are being milked twice a day. The production of the cheese and its ageing in the cellar also takes place directly at the alp. An ETH study confirming that cheese originating from the alp is healthier, consequently doesn’t come as a surprise.
Urn Alpine cheese is a full-fat cheese with a high level of omega-3 fatty acids. A daily ration covers 50 per cent of the daily calcium requirement as well as 25 per cent of the protein supply and additionally contains vitamin A, B2, B6 and B 12. Even those unable to tolerate milk sugar (lactose) are able to eat cheese because milk sugar and whey proteins remain within the pressed off whey.