Alpage cheese making – it’s all in the gesture

Concerns for our health have made us more conscious than ever of our daily, habitual gestures: shaking hands, kissing in greeting, touching our face, our eyes, our mouths. Some are unconscious tics, others are small rituals we’ve acquired, and practiced, over a lifetime – many lifetimes.

These ritual gestures are essential to artisanal trades, as well, and to watch the alpage cheese makers of Vaud, in Switzerland practice their trade is to watch a dance of hands, and movement, that have been practiced and perfected for centuries.

It starts with the milking of the cows, which high up in their alpine pastures feed on a diet of summer grasses and wildflowers. With each sure tug of the udders, the bucket slowly fills.

Two cheese makers may work together, husband and wife. It’s the wife’s hands that stoke the fire that warms the massive copper kettle into which the milk is poured. With the addition of rennet, a natural milk-curdling enzyme found in the lining of a cow’s stomach, the milk begins to congeal into curds. Then the husband submerges a large square cloth into the curdling milk, which is trawled along the bottom of the kettle until it rides up the side of the kettle again, gathering the curd into a net.

The woman pulls a hook and pulley along a rail fixed to the ceiling and moves it into place above the kettle, while the man bunches the edges of the cheesecloth into his hands, and hooks it onto the pulley. Her two hands holding fast to the rope, she begins to hoist the gathered cloth into the air, whey streaming out through its pores. With one hand the man keeps the cloth bunched together on the hook, while with his other lean muscled arm he steadies the rope each time his wife tugs.

Risen out of the sloshing, steaming whey, the great seeping bundle is pulled easily along the rail toward a large wooden slab work table, where a great cheese form sits waiting to receive it. Now the man begins to work, kneading, patting, squeezing, pinching, his hands dancing around the quivering mass, twisting the cloth ever tighter, as the whey runs out and down a gutter carved into the length of the work table.

With enough of the liquid drained, the form looks like a risen loaf of bread, pre-baking. Then the man covers the form with a large wooden wheel, adds a heavy x-shaped metal brace, lowers a steel piston down that he begins to crank, the pressure building, the whey streaming out, with every twist. After he has performed this gesture to each side of the cheese wheel, he’ll let it sit for hours before the cheese begins its maturing process.

There’s nothing improvised in these gestures. These traditions weren’t built in a day. That’s why they’re something worth celebrating, as many small towns continue to do across Switzerland with pageants and parades on the days the cows’ stalls are thrown open and they are led up to their mountain pastures.

Stoking the fire, milking, creating alpage Gruyère: the gestures that make all this happen still burn bright at 1500m above Lac Leman.

To see some keepers of the traditional alpage cheese making flame this summer, visit Fromagerie de Jaman, in Vaud, Switzerland and try their delicious Gruyère.