KE:S is cheese in the Vorarlberg dialect. I make Vorarlberg Alp Cheese, which is a special type of the Vorarlberg Mountain Cheese, it is actually made at the alp. My name is Anton.
Anton makes ke:s.
The ke:s that I make and offer is a ‘Gepsen’ cheese from the Bregenzerwald (a mountainous forest region in the province of Vorarlberg). ‘Gepsen’ are 10-12 cm high and quite wide wooden vessels, approx. 60 cm in diameter. Cheesemaking starts with milking in the evening. The evening milk, fresh and ‘cowwarm’, is then filled into the ‘Gepsen’. The various kinds of lactic acid bacteria, which exist naturally in the milk, can multiply in the warm, unchilled milk. That means that the milk can ripen overnight.
In the morning the cream that has developed on top is skimmed. While skimming, the dairyman (the ‘Senn’: the exclusive idiom in Vorarlberg for the man who makes the cheese) can taste the milk. Depending on weather conditions and pasture intake the milk develops differently. When it is hot or sultry the milk ripens more than when it is cold. I have to react to the respective condition of the milk in the further process of cheesemaking. In any case, the milk in the ‘Gepsen’ has ripened to an extent that allows me to do without any bacteria cultures from the laboratory. The big advantage of ‘Gepsen’-ripened milk is the natural species diversity of lactic acid bacteria which can develop in the milk. This diversity, in the course of the ripening process of the cheese, leads to a broad and highly individual taste of the various cheese loaves, which becomes more and more recognizable with the duration of the ripening process. The diversity of life in the milk can unfold more and more. The skimmed milk from the ‘Gepsen’ is poured into two copper vats (1200 and 600 ltrs. respectively) and heated up to 32° C. The fresh morning milk is added. Depending on the weather and/or its stage of maturity the milk is left standing at 32° C for a longer or shorter period of time. This is the ideal temperature for the growth of lactic acid bacteria. When it is cold, the milk is kept longer at 32° C, so that it can still develop, when it is hot, the time is shorter to prevent overripening. Then the rennet (‘Renne’, as it is called in the Bregenzerwald) is stirred in.
At the alp I produce the ‘Renne’ myself. I get dried calf abumasa from the butcher’s. I put them into whey for 24 hours releasing the enzymes necessary for the clotting of the milk into the whey. Then the abomasum is again drained from the whey which with all the enzymes contained is now the rennet. With one litre of rennet 1000 litres of milk coagulate into a perfect jelly within half an hour. Besides, the rennet is also important for the maturation of the cheese and acts like a culture. When the milk has thickened, it is cut with a harp, applying the correct sweep to achieve an even and thorough breaking of the curd.
By this means the cheese separates from the whey and starts to float in it as curd granules. From the way the whey separates from the cheese, from the smell that evaporates and from the colour of the whey, the experienced ‘Senn’ can see whether there is a balanced maturation process and how to further react.
The cheese is then stirred for approx. 1,5 hours and heated up to 52° C. When the cheese has turned crispy – i.e. a handful of cheese pressed to a ball by hand can be easily crumbled – it is retrieved from the vat using a large cheese linen hanging from a flexible metal rod. 4 loaves from the big vat, two from the small one. These are squeezed into adjustable moulds, covered with wooden lids and pressed, applying little pressure at the beginning and then increasing it more and more to make the whey ooze out well.
On the next morning the cheese has turned into finished loaves, still soft and rubber-like. The loaves are then put into brine for 3 days, where they absorb salt and undergo an important exchange of micronutrients. From the brine the loaves are then stored on shelves where they wait for further attendance and maturation.
Back to the vat: after the cheese has been extracted, the whey remains in the vat. 10% of the milk turn into cheese, the big remainder is whey. This whey is now heated up to about 85° C until fat rises.
The fat is then skimmed with a ladle, chilled and churned into butter together with the cream skimmed from the ‘Gepsen’ in the morning.
Just before boiling a little acidified whey is added into the vat and the ‘Sennsoup’, residual protein, bubbles up. In fresh condition the ‘Sennsoup’ is the daily appetizer at the alp.
The ‘Sennsoup’ is also used to produce ‘Zieger’ (a type of curd): It is drained in cloths and then seasoned with salt, caraway seed und ‘Ziegerherb’, a very special herb that gives the Zieger its very special, intense and typical taste.
When the ‘Sennsoup’ has been drained, the clear whey, called ‘Schotte’, remains. This whey is used to rinse and clean the ‘Gepsen’. If you did this with normal water they would soon be greasy and unfit for use.
Depending on the weather, the ‘Gepsen’ are cleaned differently. When it is cold, the ‘Gepsen’ are briefly turned in the whey and slightly brushed so that a little bacterial life can survive in the wood to encourage nightly milk maturation. When it is hot and sultry, the ‘Gepsen’ stay in the hot whey longer and are brushed more vigorously to slow down maturation. Washing the ‘Gepsen’ over the steaming vat is the ‘Senn’s’ daily sauna.
Finally the whey is taken to the pigs who look forward to it every day.
And then the vats are scrubbed, the cheese loaves turned once more, the floor washed und brushed before, at last, there are a few hours of peace and quiet until the fresh milk is again poured into the ‘Gepsen’.
Making cheese using ‘Gepsen’ requires the Senn’s utmost attention. The procedure is lively and different every day. It surprises you, riddles you and is full of secrets. It rests on the sensitivity and experience of the ‘Senn’ to read the signs, to let the process happen and to interfere in a balancing way. The longer a cheese has matured, the clearer it turns out how well this has worked out.
With all these many summers at the alp my relationship to milk has become somewhat intimate. I am able to judge the milk by my own condition: in the same way as weather and atmosphere influence me physically and spiritually, they also influence the milk. Lightness and seriousness, agility and lethargy – it is a two-way connection. In the same way that I approach the milk, it comes towards me.
A love affair.
Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer alps that use ‘Gepsen’ for cheese production. There is more and more fast cooling to prevent self-maturation of the milk and to make maturation more manageable by adding specially grown bacteria cultures. Thus you save all the work in connection with washing the ‘Gepsen’, as descibed above.
However, there will always be some fools around fighting for life and love and being ready to accept a few stresses and strains in their pursuit.
In the Bregenzerwald we have the so-called three-step agriculture. This means a semi-nomadic life for the farmers who put their cows to pasture at various altitudes. In winter the cows are at the home farm, in May they are led to the ‘Vorsäß’ (an alpine meadow mowed once a year with a farm building), in summer up to the alp, in September back to the ‘Vorsäß’ and in October down to the home farm. It is from these three altitudes that the cheeses I offer originate. They all come from Egg in the Bregenzerwald, either from the dairy Egg-Hof/Messmerreuthe with ‘Senn’ Horst Meusburger, the ‘Vorsäß’ Rehenberg with ‘Senn’ Daniel Flatz the alp ‘Untere Falz’, where the cheese is made by me. These three businesses are of approx. the same size and operate with ‘Gepsen’.
The young cheese loaves are brought to Vienna where they mature under my care.