Appenzell Part 2: the Cheese, please

Appenzell in the Morning
Early morning in Appenzell

Around our visit to the Alpabzug, unsurprisingly, we also took an interest in, you guessed it, cheese. And that brought us to the small town of Stein. On the edge of this village in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, there is a complex of two buildings that do a magnificent job in telling the story of local agriculture. There is a museum which displays beautiful folk are with lots of cows and flowers, a live person in a shed who makes cheese with traditional equipment that you can buy in the gift shop (yes, you heard right: go to a museum to buy cheese) and a host of other bits and pieces of local history. It’s a modern, light building with plenty of room for all the art and artefacts. Next door is the Schaukäserei, a place that explains the history and the art of cheesemaking in the region, wrapped around a large cheesemaking facility.

Appenzell Museum Stein
Senner Hut: Butter churn on the right, harmonic cowbells in the back

One of the best exhibits is a film that shows an interview with an old Senn, who tells the story of his growing up with a dozen siblings on a farm where the diet consisted largely of bread and dairy products: butter, whey, cheese, milk. Sennen spend their days in summer herding cows, milking them and either transporting the milk down the mountain or turning it into cheese right there in a shed in the meadows. Even today these men and women work in the open with most of their interactions limited to their bovine charges. The old man’s eyes light up when he speaks about the cows, how he likes talking to them and rubbing their heads.

He goes on to explain how the cheese he was used to was normally low-fat: the cream would be scooped off the milk and turned into butter that could be sold at higher prices, and almost immediately: butter provided cash-flow. In the town of Appenzell they still sell this cheese, and call it Rässchäs, sharp cheese. And that, my cheese friends, is not an understatement. This cheese combines and surpasses the sharp saltiness of really old Dutch cheese with the potent stink of a Munster. In fact, a quick scientific survey of everyone in the family irrefutably concluded that it is was worse than any cheese I had ever dared to bring into the home. Räss in flavor and smell, indeed. It is the kind of cheese that will put hair on your chest – I thought it was impressive in the best possible way.

Appenzell Museum Stein II
Mid-19th century drawing in the Appenzeller Museum
Appenzell Costumes
Appenzeller traditional dress

The unusual cheese choices in this part of Switzerland don’t end there. I picked up a few slices of Schlipferkäse at a cheese shop that seems to specialize in unusual cheeses. It came with an interesting recipe: soak a slice or two overnight in lukewarm water (cover it up, but do not refrigerate). The next morning, pour off the water, cover the cheese with some cream, add salt, pepper and cumin as you like, and eat it for breakfast with some boiled potatoes with the skin still on – Gschwellti, as the Swiss call them. Yup – true recipe. I tried it without the Gschwellti and it’s quite pleasant, although I doubt I would often want to go through the trouble. To me some hard cheese with a slicer is easier and less work.

Cheese from Appenzell
Clockwise from top left: Suurchäs, Schlipferkäse, Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, Rässchäs

Finally, I got a piece of Suurchäs, sour cheese. This cheese is produced in the neighboring district of Toggenburg, the modern incarnation of a medieval county with the same name. it is made of skimmed milk and therefore has a lot of protein, without much fat. It is white, with a fresh and somewhat sour taste, and as it gets older, a shiny layer develops on the surface that looks a bit like bacon, and is hence called ‘speck’. All three of these cheeses are rather acquired tastes, but not so much the fourth cheese I brought home from Appenzell. It came from the neighboring community of Urnäsch, where the family farms work together in a cooperative that markets several local cheeses very professionally. One of them is made with milk only from cows that have horns – there is some evidence that the milk of these animals tastes a bit different. I got some Urnäscher Brauchtumskäse, heritage cheese, if you will. This one comes in three different ages and mine had ripened for somewhere between 6 and 8 months. It is not a miracle that it won a Super Gold award at the World Cheese Awards a few years ago, because it is salty, creamy, and chockful of flavor. And yes, to make it a nice round number, we did purchase a piece of Appenzeller Edel-Würzig, marketed as superior spicy on the Appenzeller website. The secretive men (and, recently, a young boy) that appear on large billboards throughout Switzerland tell you through their silence that you’ll never know the exact composition of the herb bouquet that finds it’s way into the cheese. And if you would, they may just decide to never let you leave, to protect the trade secret. Things could be worse.

Secret of Appenzell
Sshhhh….

 

Appenzell, Swiss Postcard

Goats and Appenzell boy
In the lead: boy with Appenzell goats

There are cow parades at the end of summer, and then there is the Alpabzug in Appenzell. In the most conservative cantons in Switzerland, where voting is still done by raising hands in the voting square of the town in some places (and women had to fight for much of the 20th century to join in the voting), tradition is on full display when the cows come home in a carefully choreographed ritual. Ahead of the cows comes a young boy wearing yellow pants and a red vest, a little leather cap on his head and a dangling earring in his right ear. He carries a richly decorated Fahreimer, a wooden bucket, on his shoulder.

Goat Girls in Appenzell
Goat Girls

Then come the Appenzell goats, ushered along by one or more girls who control them with twigs and branches. Next up are the three lead cows, with bells that are carefully calibrated to be in harmony. They are preceded by a Senn, a cowhearder, in the same dress as the young boy. Behind them are three Sennen, also with red vests but wearing brown pants. These men sing or jodel along with the bells, and keep an eye on where the cows go. This is no trivial matter because some of the cows just do not follow protocol all that well.

Senn in Urnaesch
Senn with lead cows
Unruly Cows in Appenzell
Unruly Bovines

The herd follows, cows and calves, and assorted humans to keep them in line. Next is a horse-drawn cart, the Ledi, which carries all the implements needed for cheese making. Much of these are no longer in use, but they do make for a beautiful display. Concluding the procession is the owner of the cows, in white shirt, often with bib suspenders, and brown pants. He may have his son along, and his dog, and sometimes he’ll pull a bull along. There are variations – in Appenzell itself I saw a teenage girl pulling the bull (“I cannot believe dad is making me do this” on her face), and you may see some chickens carried along on a wagon, or a pig or so. But mostly, the order is adhered to and everyone goes about it with a curious mix of cheerful solemnness.

White brown cow
Gorgeous Cow
Senn II
Zaure: singing along with the bells
Cart
Ledi: the cart with the cheese-making utentils
Farmer will bull in Appenzell
Farmer with his son and a bull
Daughter with dog
Daughter with the Bläss, the herding dog 

We went to Urnäsch in the Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, while overnighting in the canton next door: Appenzell Innerrhoden. Not an unimportant detail, as our stated goal is to spend time in every Swiss canton in the course of the time we will spend here. Urnäsch is small and everyone seems to know each other, and everyone is out to cheer on their farming neighbors. I think there were people along the way who did not just greet the farmer and his family, but also individual cows. There was a market set up where one could buy sausages, Appenzell folk art and – you guessed right! – cheese. In the main street is a delightful museum that tells stories of the very rich folk art and traditions of the area. It is house in an old building with lots and lots of rooms, so you are clambering up and down stairs, watching you head under the low ceilings all the while ooh-ing and aah-ing at the colorful art that fills each room. I am not normally a fan of these attic-like museums, but this one absolutely works – I can only recommend it.

House in the Rock
Berggasthaus Aescher under the Ebenalp

Our day continued up to the nearby Ebenalp to what is perhaps the most famous restaurant in all of Switzerland: the Berggasthaus Aescher, squeezed onto a narrow ledge under an enormous overhang. As tourist sites go, it does get a lot of traffic, but we were comfortably seated and found the food, service and views absolutely worth the climb.

Going to Church in Appenzell
Going to church in Appenzell

The next morning, our tradition-filled extravaganza continued as we saw local women in traditional dress enter the church across the street from our hotel. Appenzell is easily one of the most picturesque of all Swiss cantons – a living, breathing, voting postcard.

Alphorns and Storks in Alsace. And cows, of course.

Alsatian Costumes
Traditional Dancers

My second ‘cows are coming home’ event in the past month was a Transhumance, and with that, I was of course in France. Check that: I was in Alsace, and you can read in a previous post what that means. If you don’t want to read that previous post: be that way, fine. Suffice to say that Alsace is just not all that French. One of the great discoveries here in the tri-country area is just how little the people that live there seem to care about such trivial matters as international borders. In St. Louis, right on the border to Switzerland, you can hear people on the market ask for something in Swiss German; they don’t bat an eyelash if the answer comes back in Alsatian, and a third person may feel the need to chime in and do so in French.

Alphorns
Alphorns in front of Munster’s church

And so the cows’ homecoming in this part of France is celebrated with folkloric dancing, music, and (wait for it) Alphorns. And if you’re shy about your abilities in French here, just try your best German and especially the older people will respond in Alsatian – a dialect that’s very close to the German they speak across the border, or to the dialect of Basel, for that matter.

What is unique about the Transhumance in the town of Munster (nothing to do with Munster, Germany, or the Peace of Westphalia, for those of you who remember that from history books) are the cows themselves. The first time I was in Munster, it was in winter so I could not find any in the snow-dusted pastures, and a few weeks ago I was in a cheese museum that is supposed to have them, but I was told that they had not come down from the mountains yet….

Vosgesienne II
Proud Cow
Vosgesienne III
Vache en tricolore
Vosgesienne I
And another one…

The elusive cows I am speaking of are tough ladies. They weather wind and rain and cold up in the high meadows of the Vosges Mountains, and so they’re called Vosgesiennes. With their characteristic black and white coloring, they’re some very good-looking bovines, and if you are a purist, you want your stinky Munster cheese to come from Vosgesienne milk. While they are the undisputed stars of the Fête de la Transhumance et de la Tourte, there is an awful lot more to see and do in Munster. The other part of the celebration is the tourte, a pie of well-seasoned ground pork and onions, but there are a lot of other delicacies to try.

Tourtes
Tourtes

Among them is Siaskass, a mixture of fresh cheese, crème fraiche (sour cream, but better), sugar and kirsch. There is smoked saucisson, spectacular farmer’s bread and candies from the mountains made with pine sap or a liquor made of mirabelles. For kids, there are random farm animals to pet, adding to a joyful, chaotic party that brings traffic through town to a screeching halt. And way over everyone’s head, dwelling in comfortable, I daresay luxurious nests perched like gargoyles on the church roof are the flying fortresses that are the official bird of Alsace. To make sure no one can ever miss it: there is a Pharmacie de la Cigogne, next to the Hotel de la Cigogne, which has an enormous Cigogne on its façade. There are Cigognes in the fields on the way to Munster and they hover over the church before landing onto their comfortable pads. The people from the Munster Valley love their cows, but they revere their storks.

Stork
Over everything and everyone, the stork

 

Beautiful Sheep

Aletsch Glacier
Aletsch Glacier in the background, sheep in the foreground

The end of summer is nigh, and in some parts of Switzerland, it is nigher than in others. Go up into the mountains and the air is getting very crisp already. Time to bring the animals in from their summer pastures. And while in August, you still have to wait a while for the cows to come home, in the canton of Wallis (Valais), the sheep that roam the high meadows overlooking the Aletsch glacier are ready to come down from the mountain meadows.

Here come the sheep
Here come the sheep

That’s actually entirely untrue. The sheep are not ready to do anything, but their owners believe that the last weekend of August is a good time to have them all rounded up and marched down. And for that purpose, they employ a dozen or so young men who spend a few days rounding up the animals before they bring them to a centuries-old sorting pen on the Belalp (yes, that’s bel alp, as in “beautiful alpine meadow”), high on a mountain slope above the charming little town of Blatten. The place where the sheep roam is so remote and high up (almost 10,000 feet) that wolves and bear can’t find them and they are left entirely on their own for the summer. Small wonder that the official march down the mountain sometimes becomes a bit chaotic – the sheep are borderline feral. This time around, at one point some 10 animals near the end of their march changed their minds, turned around and charged headlong into the procession that followed them, increasing the already impressive bleating and bell-clanging noise level on the Belalp.

Sheep to the Belalp
Confusion on the trail – which way is up?

Watching animals come down the mountain at the end of summer is a spectator sport in Switzerland, one that I have embraced with abandon. The Alpabzug (or Alpabgang, or Transhumance, or Désalpe) is a rural celebration with a lot of pageantry that is cherished by Swiss people young and old and, increasingly, by visitors from all over. But most Alpabzüge are with cows, with a few goats thrown in for good measure, or a chicken or two. The sheep of the Belalp don’t see quite as many onlookers, even if it feels a bit crowded up there, but that’s simply because there isn’t a lot of room.

There is something timeless and poetic about the sheep’s homecoming. The local darlings are the Walliser Schwarznasen – Valais Blacknose sheep. So much so that to a farmer in these parts, a sheep (“Schaf”) is a Blacknose; every other four-legged woolly animal is a Mutte. And while there is a sort of sheep that’s actually called that, the word is often used to dismiss ‘those others’ as not worthy of the name sheep.

Saaser Mutte
Not a real sheep: Saaser Mutte

So Sheep and Mutten, once gathered at the end of their alpine trek, eventually make their way to the Färricha, a complex of pens made with local stones, that becomes the scene of sheep sorting the next morning. The sheep, several hundred of them, overnight in the main pen until, a few hours after sunrise, the sorting begins.

Faerricha
Färricha
Ready for sorting sheep
Morning prayer for a good sheep rodeo
ornery ovid II
This one almost got away
ornery ovid III
Escape artist

To attend the sorting and counting of the sheep, a process whereby the sheep owners pull, push, jump, run and dive for their sheep in the bleating melee, one has to get up early to get on the gondola and walk another 20 minutes or so, but it is the best thing about the whole affair: before the sorting starts, the young men who are paid by the owners to get the sheep down line up on the wall of the main pen, say a prayer plus a few solemn words and then join the ovine rodeo. And as I mentioned, the sheep are often in no mood to cooperate. So some owners who appear to be cursed with particularly ornery sheep, do find themselves wrestling each sheep into their smaller pen, to get a full account. And on occasion, a sheep may decide it has other ideas – it’s great fun to watch, even if it is all over in an hour or so. Then, mass is celebrated under the blue sky and everyone goes home after that. There is a brilliant documentary about the sheep here. It’s in German and Walliserdeutsch, but the images are breathtaking, and the theme refers back to the timeless aspect of the Schafscheid, the sheep sorting: one of the men who brings down the sheep explains that that this has been done for hundreds of years, and that he wants to see it continued for some hundreds more. And the fact that the sheep are practically uneconomical (the wool sells for pennies, the meat’s not all that great, apparently) matters not at all. A veritable glow comes over this sheep wrangler’s face when he earnestly and rhetorically asks: have you ever seen a more beautiful sheep?

Sheep on the Belalp
Sheep on the Belalp