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See how we make sérac, the Swiss ricotta, up in the Swiss Alps and learn about about Swiss cheese botanics with a field trip to see what the cows graze up there.
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Moulds count as some of the finest connaisseurs of cheese, and it takes hard work to brush the cheeses in brine every other day to keep them away. It is this lady's job.

During the summer, they have 40 white cows and 40 black Hérens cows (see below). With two milkings a days, and plenty of pastures around, this makes about 700 liters (185 gallons) a day. Mathilde makes 10 big 5.5kg (12lbs) cheeses and 15 tommes of 1.4kg (3lbs) each.

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Click for 360° interactive panorama Interactive 360° panorama #1
The large cheese ripening cellar where cheeses spend the first few months of their life. That's where Mathilde the cheesemaker will take you if you ever knock on her door, so that you can pick the exact cheese head you want - or ask her to cut you as slice.

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I couldn't resist buying one of her séracs...

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... as well as a few super-fresh, ricotta-like mini séracs.

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Swiss dairy chalets produce oceans of whey and mountains of sérac is made from that whey. It is not always easy to find a market for this whey cheese and cheesemakers propose it in various guises to attract new consumers. Here is one I bought, coated in chives. Sérac only contains proteins and almost no fat.

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Mathilde goes for a well-deserved nap and we go back to the car and drive the last mile up the Sanetsch path. We pass an intriguing house nested against a huge boulder, the Swiss Alpine Club hut, opened during winter only.

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We have lunch at the inn on the Sanetsch path, run by a pony-tailed local man who once rode a mule to Rome to meet the pope. While we wait for food, I place a 19th century plumb-bob in my fist and challenge my friends to guess what it is. All I'll do is answer yes or no to any question they ask. After 10 minutes they run out of steam but won't give up. Finally my father guesses and I gift him the beautiful brass implement, which I bought for a song on Ebay the week before.

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Our guide is Alphonse Jacquier, my father and him go back 50 years of rock-solid frienship. He held me in his arms as an infant. Alphonse is a big man in the Swiss dairy industry and loves passionately everything about cheeses. I rung him up one day to ask if he could recommend a chalet d'alpage where I could see some serious traditional cheesemaking. Alphonse gave me a long list, each with lyrical comments about the chalet's location, the cow breed and the cheesemaker who runs the chalet. Let's go together, he offered. I said I'd love to, but could he find a chalet that would be accessible by car so that I could take my father who is not found of Alpine slopes? That's how we went to the Tsanfleuron.

Alphonse stopped at the roadside to show us Gentiana Lutea, a beautiful plant ignored by cattle due to its bitterness but much loved by friends of the bottle. They macerate the flower's roots in alcohol to prepare Gentiane, a popular digestive in the Alps. I ask him about how plants affect milk and cheese taste, and a huge smile appears on his face.

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Alphonse is a son of the Alps and a keen amateur botanist. He paused many times as we made our way up from the chalet and through the meadows, to show me plants of interest. This one is l'Epilobe à feuille étroite (Epilobium Angustifolium). Our grandmothers prepared fireweed tea for old men who had trouble urinating. And recently it was discovered that the plant contains a substance that fights Benign prostatic hyperplasia, and it now made into a drug., explains Alphonse, clearly relishing the old woman's tale vindicated by modern science.

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Alchemilla vulgaris L. As we are standing on the border between Swiss-German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland, Alphonse tells me that It is called Frauenmantel in German, that means ladiesmantle, for the leaves look like the mantle of Saint Mary. Alchemist collected the dew that accumulates on the funnel-shaped leaves for they believed it could transmutate vulgar metals in gold. This is a great plant to have your cows graze to make good chese as it contains tannins, natural dyes that give the Alp milk and the cheese Omega 3-6 and HDL rich cholesterol. Cows love it.

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Alphonse grabs a fews leaves and explains that These are what we call refus, those renonculaceous and anemons that is hopelessely bitter and sometimes toxic. Cows usually avoids it.

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Alphonse leads me close to the slopes where the cows are grazing. Cows are only aggressive if they feel threatened. All you need is come quietly and they'll leave in in peace, Alphonse explains. Those are beautiful Hérens cows, a symbol of Valais. We have cowfights in Valais with these cows, not the cowardly kind where 10 guys on horses hurl javelin into the cow until it bleeds to death, but cow to cow, locking horns until one yield and the victor becomes queen of the Alp. The Cantonal bank of Valais even has such a cow on a billboard with a slogan - «The cantonal bank of Valais : Valaisian by nature».

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This is the essence of what makes fromage d'alpage so unique. The cheese made during those 3 summer months up the Alp is imparted with unique flavor coming directly from the cows' diet. Those cows eat fresh alpine plants, eaten right from the ground and they pass on many substances into the milk such as tannins, carotenoids, flavonoids, anthocyans and other natural dyes, told me Alphonse. The carotène is that substance also found in carrots and self-tan lotions, and its higher concentration in Alpine plants make fromage d'alpage slightly yellow. If you ever have to buy Swiss cheese, you absolutely need to buy fromage d'alpage. Surprisingly, this cheese is not more expensive than regular cheese made from hay-fed cows. But there is less of it. If the cheesemonger doesn't know what you mean, well, he doesn't have any Alpine cheese. It should say alpage on the label. Don't miss that.

Published 08/12/2008
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52 Comments

Great article. I was waiting for this article for sometime. I tasted the ricotta salata which you suggested for Pasta Alla Norma, it is divine! Normal ricotta lacks the final strong taste. I will go looking for the swiss version now.

I am somehow puzzled though. How come rennet is able to curdle the water soluble proteins in the second roundn, while not in the first round? Does it have to do with the heat? Acidity?

Let me take the liberty of doing some editing:

"she started making sérac, a very popular Swiss whey cheese very similar to sérac" I think you meant "similar to ricotta salata"
  • FX's answer→ Ahmet, thanks for the editing! I will hit the books to find out how the secondary curdling occurs and report back.

  • FX's answer→ Ahmet, I have updated the article to explain the difference between the two curdlings, one is rennet that curdles casein, the second is acid that curdles other proteins left in the whey.

  • #4
  • Comment by Sarah
  • on: 08/12/2008
"But as soon as the fromages d'alpages were out of the whey..."

I KNOW you did that on purpose! Shame on you! =)
  • FX's answer→ Sarah, isn't that a good line?

  • #6
  • Comment by Cris
  • on: 08/12/2008
Oh, I's seems very interesting this kind of ricotta, but I'm afraid it would be hard to fine in Barcelona.I'll try.
  • FX's answer→ Cris, I am sure that you do not lack good cheeses in Barcelona. Keep that one for a future Swiss trip, no need to fly it over with the great Spanish cheeses at your disposal!

  • #8
  • Comment by Alys
  • on: 08/12/2008
Fabulous to see the way of the "alpage" or should I say whey ...
I thought for a moment that you were calling the fireweed picture "gentian" but it was cleared up in the text shortly.
This seems to be your day for playing with words.
"mould-resistant plastic moulds" as well as "out of the whey". Must be fun for you to play in English as well as with your food.
:-)
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Alys, indeed I like my idioms and double entendre, hope it doesn't read too heavy in English!

  • #10
  • Comment by Rosa
  • on: 09/12/2008
I love serac cheese! It is so delicious just with some olive oil and sea salt... Thanks for the report and stunning sceneries/pictures!

Cheers,

Rosa
  • FX's answer→ Thank you Rosa!

  • #12
  • Comment by Astrid
  • on: 09/12/2008
Lovely post, lovely pictures (especially the first one with the light on the lady's face). Would you happen to know how to say "fromage d'alpage" in German? I live in Zurich and would love to try to find some.
  • FX's answer→ Astrid, in German you would call this Alpkäse [alpkayzay] and I'm sure you'll find some in many shops, maybe even at the Gourmet shop downstairs of Globus.

  • #14
  • Comment by Luiz Fernando Xavier Farah
  • on: 09/12/2008
First let me congratulate you again, for the superb work in the net and in the kitchen.
Second, since you are in a Cheese period, I strongly suggest you to makea exploratory tour with the cheeses of Portugal.
the Serra da Estrela, the Azeitão, the Envendos, the Picante da Beira Baixa, are just a few of the great cheeses produced there.

keep writing I will keep reading.    
  • FX's answer→ Luiz, I have some Portuguese friends and would very much like to visit some small cheesemakers in Portugal as well as Port wine makers and many other things!

The first thing that caught my eye about this story was the huge cauldron!  What a beautiful piece of equipment.  The Cheesemistress' use of her mouth only further proves we sometimes need 3 hands.

As the cheese was formed, I kept thinking it reminded me of ricotta salata.  Then, lo and behold, you agree!  Ricotta Salata is a real "sleeper" of a cheese.  Not out there in your face like Reggiano or Grana Padana but when you see it on a plate or in the cheese case you say, "YES! Ricotta Salata!"

Thanks for another "cheesy" tale.  I always click with great anticipation the link to your next adventure when I find one in my e-mail.

<3 Chiffy
  • FX's answer→ Chiffonade, indeed this is a huge cauldron, it is built in with a hole in the cement and an underground gas heater. Serious stuff!

    Many cheesemakers use their teeth to grab the cheesecloth, it makes for a very gracious movement, like one of those long-legged birds coming to drink in some African lake.

    I think you could make your own ricotta salata without much difficulty, seems like a very beginner-friendly cheese to me.

    There will be one more cheese article this year!

  • #18
  • Comment by Mark Du Pont
  • on: 09/12/2008
You have the coolest site!  The panoramic in this posting is incredibly good as are all your beautiful photographs.  I too am curious as Ahmet regarding the 2nd rennet.  Is the 1st addition of the whey drained from the previous cheese added to assist flavor as well as curdling?

Arrivederci,

Mark
  • FX's answer→ Mark, thanks for your kind words! The whey that drained off the first cheese is the same as what's in the cauldron already. There is a type of ricotta, in Italy, where they add 10% fresh milk to the whey before recurdling it.

  • #20
  • Comment by Joanie
  • on: 09/12/2008
FX, Another wonderful tour! Thank you so much.
  • FX's answer→ Glad you liked it Joanie!

  • #22
  • Comment by Clare
  • on: 09/12/2008
Great post as usual! actually one of the first things I noticed in the pictures were Mathilde's fabulously toned arms! Cheese making is definitely good exercise!
  • FX's answer→ Clare, oh yes Mathilde is a strong woman! It is really pleasing to see such a modest, kind, soft-spoken woman bust the prejudices about what women can do and be.

  • #24
  • Comment by Allea
  • on: 09/12/2008
Your pictures make me wanted to visit Alpine ^_^ very very beautiful scenery!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks, I really recommend you visit the Swiss Alps, you absolutely do not need to be a mountaineer to enjoy them!

  • #26
  • Comment by babyg
  • on: 09/12/2008
I was just thinking as I was waiting for your main page to load how much I would like to read another article about cheese making! You totally read my mind ^.^
Very interesting, and as always in the cheese making part, beautiful scenery!
Also, cheese makers must have the strongest teeth and jawbones in the world from holding onto those cheesecloths...
  • FX's answer→ Indeed Mathilde is not a shrinking violet, when you come to think of it she has 4 kids and a very involved occupation!

  • #28
  • Comment by Mike
  • on: 09/12/2008
Francois, master of the fromage!

Do you know perhaps where one buys rennet? I've been looking for it far and wide (I have a cottage cheese project in the works).

-mike
  • FX's answer→ Mike, there are lots of online shops nowadays that sell rennet and all sort of cheesemaking supplies - just google those words and yeah shall find!

  • #30
  • Comment by Suzanne Gagnon
  • on: 09/12/2008
Another wonderful, fascinating and inspiring post-- just what is needed as the bite of winter takes hold here in Vermont.  Those sunny panoramas and fascinating cheesemaking really wake me up! Thank you!
  • FX's answer→ Thank you Suzanne, I really hesitated before putting the article in chronological order with most landscape and plant pictures at the end, feared people would not see them. Glad you did!

  • #32
  • Comment by Allan
  • on: 09/12/2008
I found some alpage cheese in our local organic food store in Tampa, FL.  It was a French soft cheese and was wrapped in chestnut leaves.  A bit too ripe and sour for my taste, but whenever I am led back to Europe, I look forward to tracking down some of the Swiss variety.
  • FX's answer→ Allan, this sounds great but a very different type of cheese. Was it not sheep milk cheese from Corsica? I don't know of any cheeses in the Alps that have chestnut leaves, but hey, there are more than 1000 cheese types in France alone.

  • #34
  • Comment by constantin
  • on: 09/12/2008
FX: this is all very nice and interesting, but what about cooking a nice little dish for us again !? Cheers, C
  • FX's answer→ Constantin, yes I know that recently I've published mostly food experiences, but since I've started working on video I felt less and less like taking still pictures of my recipes. It is déjà vu, déjà fait for me and the videos ought to be even better, so if you can wait a little you should be satisfied!

  • #36
  • Comment by Paul Mckenna
  • on: 09/12/2008
Francois, you need to make your own cheese.
I need to see you in front of a jacuzzi  sized copper cauldron.

You know it makes (no) sense.

Paul

PS Mathilde didnt wear a hat or hair net when working on the whey mixture...
  • FX's answer→ Paul, aye, she should have but perhaps she felt the presence of the readers of FXcuisine through my lens and decided to take her hat off!

    I'll see about the home cheesemaking, certainly an attractive proposition!

  • #38
  • Comment by Jason
  • on: 09/12/2008
FX, thank you for such a great trip, I really enjoyed the information about the vegetation and the cows and of course the final product. Are you going to do videos? A "vlog" would be really cool. Request: Perhaps you could do a instructional story about how to make a Swiss winter comfort food?

As always keep up the great work.
  • FX's answer→ Jason, oh indeed I am doing videos right now, but hey, I try to do this to the same level as the article and it takes a lot of time. But don't worry, you'll have Swiss confort food for every season!

  • #40
  • Comment by Z
  • on: 10/12/2008
Is that your Range Rover FX? I've been trying to find one in that color for myself for almost a month now :).
  • FX's answer→ No, that's not my car and I don't like that color anyway!

  • #42
  • Comment by Mike O'Connor
  • on: 10/12/2008
I am simply in awe of FX and his efforts to enlighten us about European cuisine. What an incredibly good posting!

I had no idea concerning what cows eat versus what's in the cheese. I can see why the Swiss government subsidizes the alpine grazing bit. Too much to lose.
  • FX's answer→ Mike, indeed it is a great thing that these alpine cheesemakers are still in business, all over the country in fact. In many other countries such artisan food has disappeared, but somehow we managed to keep it. I don't think that those who make these cheeses are in it for the money though, it is rather passion and tradition that drives this cart.

  • #44
  • Comment by Laura D.
  • on: 10/12/2008
Thanks for another delicious post.  So it's true about the videos?  I'll try to keep an open mind, but my heart is really with still photos--they capture a moment in time that a video never can.  Well, I look forward to seeing them anyway.
  • FX's answer→ Laura, you must not be alarmed. My videos will be just as my pictures, just with sound and movement.

Looks like you really travel to great extents to find exotic cheeses like this... Malaysia is still filled with manufactured slices of cheese... =(
  • FX's answer→ Oh finding such ricotta is really easy around here, you can find it in almost every shop. But seeing it made is what makes me tick.

  • #48
  • Comment by Geoff Ball
  • on: 11/12/2008
Great photos and story, keep up the great work.
  • #49
  • Comment by Allan
  • on: 14/12/2008
After going back to the store, I wrote down the name of the cheese I was referring to.  "Le Vache de Chalais, Fromage au Lait du Dauphine."

My poor memory (and French) led me to confuse Chalais and Alpage.  It appears that the cheese I had was from Provence.  The differences in the cheeses should have tipped me off that they weren't related.
  • FX's answer→ Allan, it is most easy to mistake one cheese for another, they have over 1000 types of cheeses in France only!

  • #51
  • Comment by BILL IHRINGER
  • on: 26/12/2008
Your articles about cheese made in the Gruyeres and in the
Valais/Bern area are terrific.
Your desription of your experiences is first quality.
Keep on doing this, I'm familiar with both regions (being from Switzerland) having been there a lot of times, I'm getting a small group of friends together for a trip in 2009 (they ask me to when I used to talk about the Gruyere the Lake Geneva and the Lugano areas,supported with picturs. These areas are not well known to most US travellers, but are some of the most beautiful areas in Switzerland.
n.b. Next time try to take the train as part of the journey.
Thanks for your good and realistic Article.

Bill Ihringer
Jonesboro, GA (Atlanta)  USA
  • FX's answer→ Hello Bill, thanks for your kind words, I bet your American friends will just love the Gruyère. You are very right about the train, we have so many drop-dead-picturesque mountain trains and I never use them, they would definitely deserve an article if I find some food connection!


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