Switzerland is tiny in comparison with many other countries. Yet, some alpine meadows, forests and valleys are so remote that they go mostly unnoticed.
Here in central Switzerland, the Isenthal valley is such an example. Branching off Lake Lucerne, the valley can only be accessed through a steep road featuring switchbacks, tight curves and narrow passing lanes. It is a good thing the postal bus driver has nerves of steel!
About life in the remote Isenthal in Switzerland
The Isenthal is home to some 500 residents who mostly farm the steep cliffs during summer months. They choose this solitary lifestyle as a way of continuing old family traditions, such as wild hay making, hunting for game or alpine cheese making. Many residents will only return to a nearby town once every few weeks. After all, bills need to be paid and sundries need stocked.
With the outside world moving at full speed, the Isenthal residents have learned to live at arm's length with nature - an unpredictable (yet stunningly beautiful) neighbor.
Today, we are excited to be immersed into this lifestyle. We will be visiting the alpine dairy production at Musenalp at 1486 meters above sea. There are two ways to get up there: by way of hiking, or by hopping on a farmer's cable car at Kleintal. We choose the latter, even though this boxy contraption hanging from a steel rope looks utterly adventurous...
From Musenalp, this stunning view unfolds:
This lonely alpine meadow is unlike anything we have ever seen in Switzerland. It has recently rained, so the waterfalls across the valley are dropping thin streams of water. (The magnitude of this scenery reminds us of Yosemite or Zion National Park.) The vegetation is rich, with colorful flowers and juicy leaves covering the ground.
We are the only visitors up here at Musenalp. Offering intimate experiences for no more than four people is exactly the concept behind Swisspecial, a dedicated partner of the nearby The Chedi Andermatt Resort.
Owner Pascal Rast explains that his top priority is to respect the farmers' busy schedules: "With every minute a cheese maker takes to explain their trade to us, a minute of actual cheese making is lost. This is why our visits alternate among several alps in the region."
Cheese makers Sepp and Andrea embrace life off the grid
With 32 cows and 11 goats to tend to and milk, a workday on the alp can easily last from 4 AM to 10 PM. Sepp and Andrea are a couple in their late 20's and early 30's. The Korporation Uri has issued them 99-year rights to the property. The two own the dairy production and the cable car outright, however.
From June to September, the two will traditionally keep up a tough regimen for 100 straight days. And for the rest of the year, Andrea holds a desk job while Sepp works at a dairy plant in the valley.
We are deeply fascinated by the young couple's discipline. Living off the electrical grid for 100 days is one thing, but the infrequent communication with the outside world and the physical labor are another. Evidently, an increasing number of young people is entering cheese making. They will often combine the dairy business with a touristic restaurant or a bed and breakfast.
"More than forty percent of all farmers in Switzerland operate in the mountainous regions," explains Pascal. "And one third of our agricultural fields are actually considered alpine. This goes to show how important farming in the mountains is for the country's overall supply of dairy products."
Next, Sepp and Andrea are letting us in about the process of alpine cheese making
Have you ever thought about cheese as being an efficient way of conserving raw milk? For farmers in the Swiss alps, processing the summer's milk into loafs of cheese is a key to survival. In the shape of delicious aged Bergkäse, farmers are essentially adding value to their milk and are able to sell it off throughout the year.
As for Sepp and Andrea, they produce about 5000 kg of cheese per year. One third is sold through distributors, one third is sold directly here on the alp, and the remaining third is sold at markets throughout Switzerland. "Cheese is what pays our bills," Sepp concludes.
First, a pot containing some 350 liters of milk is heated. On this alp, they use a wood burning oven which cleverly sits on a cart. It can be rolled underneath the pot until the milk reaches the perfect temperature of 32 degrees C. At this point, bacteria are being added in order to break down the lactose. The process of fermentation makes the milk preservable, adds flavor and may even create holes.
"What makes your cheese taste so peculiar?" I ask Sepp.
The young cheese maker explains that the Ürner Alpchäs retains the taste of all those healthy grasses and herbs which the cows consumed. Other factors are the particularities of the storage cellar and the type of bacteria they add.
In a next step, an enzyme of the veal's stomach is added to the pot. Within the next 30 minutes, we watch as the milk starts to slowly form a mass. Sepp then uses a harp to break down the curds into ever smaller pieces before adding more heat. After a while, the two use a cheese cloth to trap just enough curds.
In a show of perfect teamwork, the cheese cloth is then transferred into a wooden box which is waiting on a separate table.
After letting any excess milk drain out, the box is opened and the loaf is cut up into blocks of equal size.
The blocks, in turn, are pressed into round plastic containers which will provide the cheese its shape. As part of the Swisspecial experience, we were allowed to make our own loaf of cheese. And in four to six weeks, we will surely be checking the Newly Swissed mailbox in order to welcome our own wheel of "Mutschli" cheese...
It's the pride of every cheese maker: aging alpine cheese on the left, with younger Mutschli cheese on the right:
Notice how Sepp and Andrea's grazing cows can move about freely? There are no fences on this alp, allowing the cows to browse for the best herbs in ever higher altitudes.
And while you are here, Restaurant Musenalp offers a 100 percent Swiss culinary experience!
Our visit to Musenalp in the canton of Uri will always be remembered. I believe that there are few places left on this planet where life is still as authentic, where traditions are lived and where time seems to be standing still. To be able and produce our own loaf of fresh cheese was quite an experience, too.