Still the temperature is fresh but a bright morning light would already let you assume that the day is going to be sunny and warm. A gravelled path going up in serpentines leads the way through spruce forest. Even some snacks weren't missing on the way as nature provided fresh wild raspberries and strawberries for refreshments. Just on time we reached the alp (this is what homesteads in the Alps are called in Switzerland) in order to participate, at least partly, in the cheese-making process. A daily task which requires skills, knowledge and passion, teaching one what alpine pastures, milk-producing cows and a passionate cheese maker can achieve.
Squeezed in a small wooden hut some of us were standing, the air heavily loaded with smoke of the open fire on which the milk was heated. I was surprised as I had never seen cheese being made on open fire. With curiosity all of us observed the movements of the cheese-making lady who took care of the whole process. Splashing drops of wey on the floor, the sounds as the freshly cut cheese is put into the forms and finally weight is put on it in order to press the remaining liquid out of the product.
Now, time and patience are required which leads to the Bernese Alp cheese with its characteristic taste in the end. Flavours can be buttery and quite strong in old cheese, mild and spicy if the cheese had been seasoned with wild herbs growing around the mountain hut. What a gift nature gives! For me, creativity and long lasting traditions make cheese to a not-to-be-missed product within our food system. Not only cheese but also whey, cream and butter are an important part of milk processing, contributing to many recipes and daily dishes in mountain regions I would not like to miss.
Smells and tastes reminding me of a lifestyle traditional to Switzerland, very "back to the root" as one would call it today or also "simply living with nature, sometimes in harsh weather conditions". However, some conditions are changing: Up on 1700 m a.s.l. a small garden provides the family living on this alp with some potatoes and vegetables. As one person puts it, "Climate change is working for us".
A fantastic view around, the great panorama of the Bernese Alps. Majestic and yet very rocky the mountain summits raise. Luckily, the weather is nice today and it gives me a feeling of freedom, joy and just gratitude of being in such a great environment. Hearing the bells of the cattle around me, feeling the fresh air – just feeling happy up there.
Wandering further up the mountains leads us into a valley in which we saw an old caravan. “How on Earth did this caravan find its way up there?”, I asked myself. Yet, a great view, a quietness I only experience in the mountains. Mountains, providing space for animals and humans – or the humans taking the space? Many tourism places show the opposite, changing former quiet places into overcrowded tourism attractions. But still there is also the traditional way of living, familiar to many other populations in other parts of the world, too.
I am always impressed by the simplicity and richness of recipes and knowledge, which people going to the alps have. The alps are a location where old myths, legends, traditional knowledge and a sustainable lifestyle are conserved and practiced, all the way to the future.
I think this tradition can contribute very much to our food system, showing that "traditional lifestyle" and modernity can live together supporting each other, contributing not only to environmental sustainability but also have a social as well as economic aspect which will pay off in the future.
Laila Grillo is one of the 24 participants of the World Food System Summer School Food Systems in Transition taking place from 17 August to 1 September 2019 in Rheinau, Switzerland. The course applies a variety of different teaching formats to help participants develop both new knowledge and skills to address the challenges of how to feed the world, while considering human health, the environment and social wellbeing is one of the defining challenges of our time.