Every spring, hundreds of families across switzerland leave the modern amenities at their valley homes and herd their livestock up mountains carpeted in thick spring grass. They will spend the summer in pursuit of an ancient treasure: nutrient-rich milk that serves as the raw ingredient for some of Switzerland’s most authentic and healthy cheeses.
Caroline Hostettler, owner of Quality Cheese in Fort Myers, FL, is making these cheeses available to Americans and helping Swiss farmers preserve their way of life through a program called Adopt-an-Alp. She acts as sort of a broker, connecting family cheesemakers to restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments hungry for artisan products.
Hostettler, who is Swiss by birth, started importing her country’s native cheeses to the U.S. in 1998 because she couldn’t find high-quality European cheese locally. She was working as a food journalist at the time, so she knew who the top chefs were in most major cities. She did a multi-city sales tour and met with five restaurants. When she returned home, she already had two orders sitting on her fax machine.
The Practice of Transhumance
Growing up in Switzerland, Hostettler was aware of transhumance and had an appreciation for the practice. Her interest and knowledge of what made these farmers’ cheese special grew when her son worked on an alp in 2010. “The higher-altitude grass has a completely different structure than grass down in the valley,” she says. “It’s the biodiversity up on an alp. You can have up to 150 different grasses and herbs that these cows or goats will feast on.”
This all-natural diet leads animals to produce milk that tastes great and has some notable health benefits. For many years, researchers puzzled over what they called the French paradox—the seemly contradictory idea that people in France could avoid chronic disease despite the fact that they consumed diets rich in butter, cream and cheese. The Swiss seemed to have a similar paradox. The families that spend their summers in the alps eat primarily the dairy produced by their cows, goats and sheep. But instead of falling victim to heart attacks and strokes, their average lifespan is longer than that of people in many other parts of the world.
How is that possible? Research from a team of scientists led by Jürg H. Beer found that milk from grass-fed cows was high in omega-3 fatty acids, one of the “good” fats thought to contribute to heart health, and low in saturated fat. In addition, cheeses from cows eating alpine grass had a high concentration of something called conjugated linoleic acid. Early studies have shown it may prevent cancer cells from spreading.
Although they didn’t have any science to back it up, early humans figured out that there was something special about this milk. So every summer, they would take their animals into the alps and make cheese in large cauldrons hung over bonfires outside their chalets. It allowed them to preserve this premium product for consumption all winter long.
The practice of people and animals moving together with the seasons is known as transhumance. While it’s done all over the Eurasian continent, Hostettler describes Switzerland as its European epicenter. “Switzerland is very small and has a lot of mountains, so you can’t grow crops,” she points out. “Basically, what you did was went up the mountain and had your cattle with you.”
Transhumance faces several challenges today—not so much from threats of development and loss of grazing land, but from attrition and modernity. The lure of technology and an easier way of life takes many young people off family farms and into cities. Without a younger generation to pass their herds and chalets to, many farmers are forced to abandon the practice as they age.
In addition, these small proprietors have struggled to market their products internationally. “They don’t have the time or desire or knowledge to fill out paperwork and do the exporting procedures,” says Hostettler. “They make cheese, and that’s what they do best.” When they aren’t assured a market for their products, it can be hard for them to justify the cost of replacing broken equipment or repairing damaged facilities.
However, “If those farmers know their products are in high demand and are appreciated and valued for what they are, chances are they’ll say, ‘Yes, let’s try to renovate this and continue to live that tradition and lifestyle,’” Hostettler says.
Adopt-an-Alp is her way of helping transhumance and Swiss cheesemaking traditions stay alive. Here’s how the program works: Each spring, restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments in the United States select a family and agree to buy a certain amount of their cheese. These are somewhat exclusive relationships; once a business commits to a certain alp, Hostettler will not sell the same family’s cheese to anyone else in their region. In the fall, when the cheese arrives, the stores can share it through special tasting events, menu items and straight retail sales. In 2018, the program connected 26 families from all over Switzerland with nearly 90 U.S. companies.
The types of cheese available vary by region and producer. Some make Raclette, a semi-hard cheese with a slightly sour flavor. Farmers in the middle of the country may make Sbrinz AOP, an extra-hard indigenous cheese that is also one of the country’s oldest varieties. Small format soft-ripened cheeses are very common. One gentleman makes a “full moon” cheese from milk harvested on days when the celestial body is at its fullest. He cooks it under the light of the full moon absent the use of electricity or any other modern convenience. “He describes how his approach to milk is different during those nights. There’s something almost magical that happens,” Hostettler says.
Each business can follow their family’s cheesemaking journey throughout the summer via Adopt-an-Alp’s blog. They’re also encouraged to share that information via social media, e-newsletters, events and other means. “We want their end consumers to become curious about the whole thing and start asking questions, like what makes alp cheese special or why is it worth keeping this tradition alive?” says Hostettler. “This gets people interested so when the cheese arrives, people are into it and understand the value transhumance brings. Customers then really want to come and try the cheese.”
Making a Connection
In the last few years, one of her goals has been to deepen the bonds between farmers and buyers. Adopt-an-Alp now sponsors a contest that rewards the store that has the most creative marketing plan with a trip to Switzerland to visit their family. The promotions are getting pretty inventive. “People will go to the public library to read ‘Heidi’ and talk about alp cheese,” Hostettler says. Another company partnered with a local tattoo parlor and gave away a cheese tattoo through a promotional contest.
“There are unbelievable connections and memories that are created during those trips,” says Hostettler. “I now have farmers that are exchanging emails with the store clerks because they know they’re selling their cheese. There are beautiful relationships that grow from that program.”
One of the program’s challenges is that Hostettler doesn’t have a uniform product to share with potential buyers. The cheeses produced by a single farmer can be different from week to week as weather, available food sources and other natural influences change. “In the beginning, I was always surprised that people had so many questions,” she says. “It dawned on me that usually you go out and sell something. This is basically communicating a lifestyle and a philosophy that, in the end, comes with some cheese. The fact that there are no samples made it even more complicated. To commit to a certain amount of cheese that’s not inexpensive without tasting it is not something people are used to.” (Buyers are not required to prepay, so they can decline to purchase cheese at the end of the season, although that rarely happens.)
But for people who understand that, the evolution of the cheese’s flavor is one of the things that make it special. Food acquired through Adopt-an-Alp is the antithesis of the uniform bricks of cheese churned out by factories. Instead, it’s a return to a time when nature had greater control over an end product, when diversity of taste and form was something to be celebrated.
There’s another throwback quality to transhumance that Hostettler deeply admires. “The people on the alp are very humble people,” she says. “They are people who are used to living with lack rather than luxury. When you move from your valley house up on an alp, you have less space and you have less material around you. I always say there’s no ‘me’ time on an alp. These people grow up in a more sane way. Even young children, they’re already part of the team. There’s something very cleansing and humbling to that. That’s something that many of us should look at and think, ‘I could learn a thing or two from these people.’”