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Swiss Alps Ricotta

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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.

Today I'll show you how we make ricotta in Switzerland, using the whey left from regular cheese. But not any cheese, fromage d'alpage, that gorgeous cheese made during those three glorious summer months when cows are grazing alpine pastures with the cheesemakers shacked up at 2000m/6000' to make cheese every morning.

I went up the Sanetsch path in the Swiss Alps, right on the border between French and German, Valais and Berne. If you were to sit for a moment on that path, weeping for the dwindling truffle production, half of your tears would end up in the Mediterranean, and half in the North Sea.

We stop shortly before the path at Le Tsanfleuron, a large dairy chalet. When we arrive around 9h00, Mathilde Martin, mother of four, was pulling out her last cheese for the day. Her last regular cheese, that is. But as soon as the fromages d'alpages were out of the whey, she started making sérac, a very popular Swiss whey cheese very similar to ricotta.

When you curdle milk to make cheese, you only use the solid white matter floating on the surface - the curds. The rest is called whey, and many cheesemakers discard it or feed it to the pigs. In some places they make butter with it by adding some cream. But you can make as second cheese from the same milk - ricotta if you will, which means literaly recooked. In Switzerland we make a semi-soft whey cheese called sérac.

Mathilde covers her cauldron to increase the the whey's temperature to 90°C (195°F).

The cheesemaker adds back some of the whey that drained off the cheeses she made in the morning. The whey is collected in a drip pan and fed into a bucket.

After half an hour, she checks the temperature, looks satisfied and opens the cauldron again to pour acid ferments dissolved in a little water.

Now all that's needed is wait for the whey to curdle a second time. The rennet will make the protein left in the cheese coagulate a second time. Contrary to the first cheese where the casein was coagulated using rennet, this second cheese is made through the denaturation and coagulation of the proteins left in the whey using an acid solution. I have read that you could obtain this using lemon juice or vinegar.

After a few minutes a layer of white curds rises to the surface. Mathilde now skims off patches of unappetizing white foam...

... then sprinkles salt on the cheese.

There is always a bit of curds stuck at the bottom of the cauldron, she explains, scraping the huge copper cauldon with a wooden stick.

Mathilde dives in ...

... and with her might copper sieve scoops out the curds from the steaming cauldron ...

... and pours the curds into mould-resistant plastic moulds.

Each mould is covered with a disc ...

... then with a stone.

Sérac differs from ricotta in that it is pressed and quite hard, much like ricotta salata used for pasta alla norma.

like one of the giant pythons visiting an underground lair to greet its inhabitants, Mathilde set a large rubber hose inside the rubber cauldron to syphon remaining whey off, while she goes out for a bit of fresh air.

I finish principal photography while Mathilde cleans her instruments. Then we all sit around the kitchen table and drink some Fendant, the local white wine, while we taste an intriguing hay-infused cheese I bought from Martin Pilcher in Südtyrol.

Next page, see the cheese cellar and learn all about Swiss Alpine cheese botanics

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.