Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Swiss Cheese Maker

The occasion for this post was a piece in the Times Magazine about a Modern house built in an ancient village in eastern Switzerland. We live in a Modern house, we like Modern domestic architecture, and we like Switzerland, and this house happened to be in a village -- Soglio -- we had visited twice. By now the Times' website has archived the story, and the archives don't include pictures, so there's no sense linking to it. But Soglio is worth knowing.

It is a tiny village perched on a terrace above the Val Bregaglia that we visited twice, in 1987 and in 1989. To get there, you follow the valley of the Upper Engadine, the famous winter sport region, past St. Moritz, Sils Maria and Sils Biselgia – an area now scarred by highways that have muddied the air and robbed the valley of much of its beauty – and through Maloja.

In ’87 we were traveling on the cheap (if that’s possible in Switzerland) and so did not rent a car. We’d take the train or the post bus to a village, find a place to stay, and head out for long hikes in the mountains.

One of those places was Maloja, where in early June it was still late winter. The larches and beeches had yet to put out leaves, and as the snow melted, entire meadows glistened with moving water. We hiked along the Via Engiadina through tiny villages that served as summer residences for cowherds – Blaunca, for example, a cluster of 20 or so stone structures with shale roofs, 6,700 feet above sea level. A carving on one of the houses said it had been built in 1436 and renovated in 1963. Near there we encountered a flock of 10 steinbock – mountain goats – and watched them feed contentedly.

The next morning, we boarded a bus at Maloja and descended through the Maloja Pass, an incredible series of hairpin curves that dropped us from the late winter of the Engadine into the full spring of the Val Bregaglia, from 5,900 feet to 2,700. The larches sprouted leaves, the conifers changed to birch and beech and chestnut, the gardens became planted, the fields full of yellow and white and blue and violet. At Promontogno we hopped a connecting bus and rode another thousand feet up the hillside to Soglio.

There we found a hotel, had lunch in the garden of an old hotel called the Palazzo surrounded by trees, hedges, and flowers. Two giant sequoias rose from the rear of the garden and nearby a sign asked for money to keep them alive. After lunch we walked through the outlying meadows, a riot of beautifully-colored wildflowers — buttercups, cow parsnip, harebells, bluebells, three kinds of mints, daisies, bladder campions, trefoil, red clover, white clover. Then we strolled through the churchyard and stopped in across the road at a dairy, or lattaria, where we met a fellow who made goat cheese. Here's what we saw and learned, from the unpublished Andersen Diaries.

June 7, 1987

Yesterday during a visit to the lattaria, Gina struck up a conversation with the proprietor, who invited us to come by this morning and watch him make cheese. So we ate our breakfast early, and shortly after 7 walked through the rain to his shop next door.

It is a stone building with a workroom of roughly 20 feet by 20 feet, and a thick wooden door and a stone floor, and lit by fluorescent lights. There are two large copper-and-cast-iron cauldrons, a scale hanging in one corner, a trough into which water trickles constantly in another corner, stainless steel pots, a small stove, a wooden table with loaves of bread and a coffee machine, and a refrigerator.

The proprietor is a man of about 40, with curly dark hair turning gray. He wore rimless eyeglasses, and a blue-and-gold plaid shirt and grey corduroy pants. He told us he had had a minor disaster that morning — some milk spilled, I think — and was going to advise us not to bother coming over. But he had gotten it under control and figured he could still make his cheese and talk to us at the same time.

"Now I will make my coffee, which I need badly," he said.

The label on the cheese says "Ziegenmilch Produkte" and the proprietors are listed as "R+H Gutekunst." I asked. "Which are you, R or H?"

"Horst," he said, "which is the eagle's nest."

There is not much goat-cheese making in Switzerland. Five to seven customers from the village walk over between 7 a.m. and 7:30 to deliver their milk. One of those, a young man with a cigarette in his mouth, came in carrying two buckets of milk, a red plastic one and a stainless steel one. He wore a maroon jacket, green coveralls. He poured the milk into a larger bucket that was hung on a scale.

Shortly after an older woman in a gray-green coat and a kerchief on her head did the same. Horst joked with her and she smiled broadly as she said "arrivaderci." Later a young woman wearing a blue jacket and brown corduroys, with a handkerchief covering her head, came in with her morning's supply. As she entered I whiffed the sweet smell of goats.

The goats go as high as 2,000 meters up the mountain in search of grass. One goat produces up to three liters of milk a day and there are 120 goats in the town — from 30 of which Horst buys milk.

He spoke English well although slowly, articulating words carefully but occasionally falling into a curious usage. The temperature of the milk while it is cooked, he said, was "the warranty" that the cheese would turn out right. And, "How to make yogurt is very simple if once you have milk," he said.

He said he lives 7 kilometers down the road and comes up to the shop twice a day. He alternates, one day making yogurt, the next day cheese.

When his coffee was ready he fixed himself some bread and butter with orange marmalade.

I asked him what the building was used for before he began his lattaria, which he said was six years ago.

"Fifty years ago the whole thing was active, with big pots — in the winter time only," because the animals remained in the barns. In other seasons people drank their milk or made cheese themselves on the hillsides. Also before he started, "They always had a problem in hay time," because when each day's field work was done, there was no time to make cheese with the milk.

Because he buys so much milk, and because there is only so much cheese and yogurt one can sell in a village the size of Soglio, "I have invented a few things," he told us, including a sort of liquid health food he calls Milkofit.

Outside the rain fell steadily, as it had since the previous night, the water sliding downhill over the cobblestones, past the church across the road.

Gina noticed and admired a hologram on the wall. He said it was his work. "I was doing some kind of an art, you know — I wanted to do it, I must say."

He said he is from Basel, "The capital of chemistry."

"Before I started this kind of work I was in scientific field — I have knowledge of several fields," he said, including electronics, physics, biology, and chemistry.

He gave Gina a detailed account of how to make cheese and yogurt and perhaps also could not resist giving us his world view, which is optimistic, particularly regarding the relations between the superpowers. With Gorbachev in power things are looking up, he said, and he gave as a recent example of a good move the decision to stop jamming transmissions by the Voice of America.

"The world is going to be a little bit better," he told us.

"The simplicity of the matter is, people are always hungry, you know."

Americans come in and sniff around suspiciously, he said, not sure of what to make of such an operation.

"They laugh. It's blowing them out because it's too much nature. They'd rather eat something plastic, instead of eat something original that has quality."

A small woman came in whom he greeted with great pleasure. He introduced her to us as Mrs. Giovanoli, a name we had seen often in the churchyard across the street. He said she is originally from Soglio, was back for a visit. It is she, he said, who taught him how to make cheese.

[Two years later we visited Horst again. He told us he no longer made many goats' products because a political fight in the town caused many of the goatkeeprs to give up the goat business.]

1 comment:

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