Like cheese? Rent a cow, or half a cow

A tasty souvenir from the Swiss Alps is the whey to go

Perched high on a hill that's blanketed with yellow, purple, and blue wildflowers stands a wooden hut. Milk cans hang neatly on pegs. Crisp, white linens beckon a greeting. Not laundry, but cheesecloths.

"You can always tell the huts where they're making cheese by the cheesecloths drying on the [clothes]line," says Janice Weber, who has lived in Switzerland for more than 20 years.

Ausserberg Alp, part of the Bernese Oberland mountain chain, conforms to the pristine image that most of us have of Switzerland. With endless meadows of columbine, daisies, violets, and forget-me-nots, it is the stuff of travel posters and picture postcards.

As we wind our way upward, past rushing streams, hearing cowbells clanking in the distance, I half-expect at any moment to see Heidi emerge from a hut on her way to meet Peter and his herd of goats.

Instead, it is Florian, a bright-eyed toddler accompanied by his cheesemaking mom, Marlene Seematter, who calls to us.

Each year between June and September, Marlene and husband HansUeli pack their belongings, scrub their cows, and leave their farm in the village of Saxeten to make their way up Ausserberg Alp to make cheese.

Both of the Seematters are certified cheesemakers, and for the past several years, their alpine cheese has received the highest possible rating from the cheese inspectors who work in partnership with the Berner Oberland Mountain Agricultural College in Hondrich.

As we enter the hut, Mr. Seematter is already hard at work stirring whitish-yellow cheese whey in a gigantic copper pot made in the 1920s.

Every morning fresh milk is poured into the cauldron and heated over an open fire. Rennet is added to curdle the milk. So is bacteria culture, which helps to ferment and age the cheese.

As the whey begins to separate from the cheese mass, the cauldron is removed from the fire by a heavy wooden swing handle. The liquid will be stirred for 35 to 45 minutes before the pot is returned to the fire.

It is in this massive stirring stage that we find Seematter. As his skillful hands churn over the cauldron, his wife moves to the deep sink, expertly cleaning and preparing the round wooden cheese molds.There is no electricity on the alp.A generator supplies the power needed for morning and afternoon milking.

"We love it here," says Mrs. Seematter. "In the morning and evening, when the generator is running, we listen to the radio and charge our cellular telephone.And in nice weather, people - like you - come up to visit."

As if on cue, a couple and their two children from nearby Interlaken knock at the door.They, too, want to experience their country's famous alpine cheese production.And their timing is perfect.HansUeli, using a muslin cheesecloth, dips both arms into the copper pot, scooping out the cheese (which looks more like cottage cheese), leaving the whey behind.

As he expertly transfers the cheese into the "jarb" (a large, round wooden frame used to shape the cheese), the Swiss children surround the copper pot excitedly.Within moments, mugs of whey are passed, drinks sipped, and mugs refilled.

For centuries, Swiss farmers have sworn by the attributes of whey. I take a steaming mug. It tastes of warm, sour milk, and I am not enamored.

Mrs. Seamatter leads us into a tiny, temperature-controlled "cheese cave."Once the cheese mass is transferred into the jarb, a lid is placed on top and a heavy stone press squeezes the rest of the whey from the cheese grains.

After four to five hours, the new cheese is wrapped in a linen cloth and submerged in salted water, where it remains for two days.The cheese is then moved to the cheese cave, where it is rubbed with salt and turned over every second day during an aging period of at least three months.

Mrs. Seamatter cuts a generous wedge from one of the aged two-year pieces and the taste is radically different from the Emmentals and Gruyres I've had in the States.

Each alp produces its own unique flavor of cheese, and the Ausserberg version is delicious.The Seematters do not skim off any cream from the milk to make butter (as is often done on other alps).The result is smooth, velvety, delicate cheese, yet with an intensely sharp flavor. I immediately purchase a kilo of the aged cheese to take with us.

Pausing halfway down the mountain to lounge in a field of sun-splashed, yellow buttercups, I remove the delicacy from my backpack, along with a fresh loaf of bread and plump Italian nectarines. Biting into the crispy bread and mountain cheese, I sigh. "I wish I could have this at home."

"Oh, but you can," says Ms. Weber. "You can rent a cow and have Ausserberg alpine cheese anytime."

"Rent a cow?"I look incredulously at our guide.

"Absolutely.You can rent any cow you like - Coney, Anemone, Arnika, Romy, Omega...."

She isn't kidding.Years ago, village farmers allowed alp owners to summer their herds on the high pastures in exchange for a year's supply of cheese.And Weber, in conjunction with the Seematters, has recently rekindled the ancient custom - enabling virtually anyone, anywhere in the world to rent a cow (or half a cow) in exchange for cheese.The idea is crazy, but in taking another bite of cheese, I know I will seriously consider it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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