Friday, August 15, 2008

Alpine Mountain High

Day Nineteen, or Alm-most Perfect:

It was again surprisingly easy to wake up at 5 a.m. to go up to the Alm. The weather was cold and rainy, so at least we weren’t racing against the heat of the day for the latest novelty: butter-making!

Butter is made from cream, but we couldn’t use the fresh cream from the morning’s milking to make butter; rather, we took the cream that had been sitting in a cool, dry place for the past couple days. For obvious reasons, butter is harder to make in the heat of the day than in the cool of the morning, so ordinarily the Sennerin would have to start making the butter at about 5 a.m. if she wanted it to form in an hour…otherwise who knows how long it could take. And when you’re churning the butter by hand, an hour is already an eternity.

The farmer brought out an old butter churn—probably also 150 years old like the centrifuge—which took the form of a wooden barrel that rests on a frame and is turned with a crank. When the cream, which has been sitting out for a couple days in a cool dry place, is cooled to exactly 12°C (54°F) in a pot of cold water—no more and no less—it is ready to be churned. The farmer poured about 10 liters of cream into the barrel and sealed the top shut; we were ready to begin.

Churning butter takes about an hour of cranking the barrel around and around by hand. The cream inside the barrel sloshes back and forth as the barrel tumbles in endless circles—but always in a clockwise direction! For some reason, which remained unexplained but firmly assumed, butter does not churn as well in a counter-clockwise direction. Go figure. After awhile, the sloshing should gradually turn to thudding, and when the thudding ceases: voila! You have butter. Churning was hard work, and the cream and the barrel were heavy enough and create enough resistance that it was an hour-long arms workout. The novelty of churning butter faded drastically within the first 15 minutes, and then I just felt sorry for the Sennerin, who would have to undertake this long, laborious, and rather boring process every other day. Fortunately, she had an MP3 player.

After an hour, which we all agreed felt like 3 hours, we still heard sloshing. Something wasn’t right. Giving our churn the benefit of the doubt, we cranked for another 20 minutes. Still no thudding. The Sennerin stopped churning and the farmer OK’ed us to look inside. We screwed off the vices keeping the lid in place, peeled off the foam seal, and looked inside: a lumpy mess. Swimming in milk was a porridge-like mess of failed butter. In theory, we should have at least produced buttermilk with the leftover liquid, but even the milk wasn’t sour enough to be buttermilk! It was decided that the cream had not actually been 12°C all the way through, and that’s why the butter was not, well, butter. However, we could still salvage it. We drained the milk and drew out the semi-solid cream, placing it in cold water to harden into quasi-butter. But our quasi-butter was basically glorified whipped cream. (…Later we discovered that we had not cranked the centrifuge fast enough, and that the cream we used for churning was not completely pure and still had a milk content that was too high for butter-making…)

Cowabunga, Dude!: Being alone on the Alm with the Sennerin allowed me to ditch all pretenses and ask all my ignorant and embarrassing questions about cows. Fortunately she not only knew a lot about her companions on the Alm but she was enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge. Through her patient tutelage I learned:

  • Cows give birth to only one calf at a time, although, like people, bearing twins is a trait that tends to run in the family. The gestation period is about 7 months and one week, and cows can give birth as early as 2 years old.

  • It’s true that if you don’t milk a cow, it will be in pain. The cows are milked twice a day, and if you don’t milk the cow, the udders will leak. Again, there are parallels here to people…

  • Although it’s safe to drink fresh milk straight from the cow, it does have more bacteria than pasteurized milk; for this reason you shouldn’t give fresh milk to children under the age of 2.

  • Why do cows wear cowbells? So you can find them again! They’re not just quaint alpine bling—if the cows wander off to graze in foggy or rainy weather, you can find them again by the sound of their bells. And often the Senner/in can recognize a particular cow by the sound of its bell!

  • The cows stay inside the stable all day because they want to. It’s too hot outside, and the bugs are too annoying. So the cows wander off to graze at night.

  • A talented milker can milk a cow by hand in 5 minutes. A less accomplished milker could take half an hour!

  • Yes, even female cows have horns! However, sometimes the horns are removed to protect the other cows in close proximity in the stable from poking an eye out. Ha.

Day Twenty, or Till the Cows Come Home:

I never really thought about the origin of this expression, but on the Alm I finally got it: the cows are let out at night to graze and then they come home in the morning, all of their own accord! They can sense the heat of the day coming on, and that milk that’s been building up all night is getting uncomfortable, so they go back to the stable to chill and get milked.

The only downside to having the cows out grazing all night is that you can hear the ding-ding-dinging of their bells all night long. Fortunately I’d come prepared with earplugs, and that seemed to do the trick until about 6 a.m. when they came back to the alpine hut. It was crisp outside—I’d slept under a down blanket with a hot water bottle under the covers—and I decided to don every layer I’d brought with me: a tank top, a tee shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a fleece sweater, and a fleece jacket. By the time I was dressed and made it out to the stable, the Sennerin was milking the last cow. She paused and then asked if I’d like to try…I’d been looking forward to this part for days!

First, she handed me a paper towel to clean off the udders, especially taking care that the area around the teat was free of gunk. Then we should have milked a few squirts by hand to get the impurities out before attaching the milking machine…but she forgot. Oops. Instead, the Sennerin brought out the milking machine and instructed me how to attach it to each of the four udders. Like a vacuum, it sucked right onto the udders; we watched the udder for the appearance of wrinkles (much like the wrinkles that appear when vacuum sucking the air out of a space-saving travel bag), indicating that it was sufficiently “deflated.” Finally, we disconnected the machine and milked the udders by hand one last time to make sure that the milk was out.

This was the part I’d been waiting for—I couldn’t wait to milk the cow by hand! The Sennerin took a teat and drew out a thin spray of milk. I knew that this was more than just a squeezing motion; you had to squeeze and draw down, and…who knows. I watched her technique, and then I gave it a try: nothing. Again, I reached high on the teat, squeezing and pulling down as I went. Still nothing. The Sennerin suggested a circular motion, wrapping my fingers around the teat and simultaneously squeezing; she demonstrated, drawing a stream of milk. I tried: nothing. She suggested squeezing harder, so I did: nothing. Finally, on my 5th try, I squeezed hard, pulled hard, and twisted the tip to see if anything was coming out; and finally—a drop! Success!

Udder Madness: Apparently, cow-tipping is an urban legend! I asked the Sennerin about it, and her expression was simultaneously confused and dumbfounded—she’d never heard of such a thing! She explained that she grew up with cows, and all the ones she’s ever known have slept lying down…thereby making cow-tipping impossible! This led me to ask about cud: cows actually chew their cud, right? Well not only do they chew their cud, but they have 7 different stomachs from which they can regurgitate it again and again! An old farmer saying goes that a healthy cow chews its cud at least 40 times…if not, there’s a problem!

Alm By Myself: When the weather finally cleared up, I decided to go up the mountain and see the summit. The Sennerin had to stay behind with the cows, but she told me I couldn’t get lost: just go up until I reach the ridge, then hang a right and keep going until I reach the summit cross…it sounded easy enough, but little did she know how poor my sense of direction can sometimes be—I was still getting lost in the school building during my last week of school! But I started up the mountain and towards the summit.

I’d never climbed a mountain alone or without a hiking trail, and it was an incredible sense of freedom as I neared the tree line. Up on the ridge the trees gave way to little alpine flowers and mosses and scattered white rocks. It was green and gently undulating, and the higher I went the more amazing the view became. I stopped along the way to take pictures and do a little alpine twirl a la Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”…I am in the Alps, after all!

Soon I saw the summit cross up ahead and was surprised at how quickly I’d reached the summit. Something about being all alone on the green and rolling mountaintop without any paths to guide me filled me with an irrepressible urge to romp. So I frolicked up to the cross, bounding over rocks and alpine flora.

The view from the summit was fantastic. Being up there was reward enough for my time on the farm, and it made up for the difficulties I’d had up until then. Never before had I been alone on a mountaintop. It was just me and God’s great grandeur spreading out in every direction. What a feeling…and what an experience!

I stayed up on the mountain as long as the good weather would allow. I slowly made my way back down as the clouds rolled in again, taking over an hour to reach the pasture as I explored the macro details of the nature around me: a moth on a thistle, a bustling anthill, the bees pollinating the tiny alpine flowers. I could have stayed a long, long time up on that mountain with nothing but my eyes and my heart to keep me busy.

Alma Matter: Life on the Alm has a different flavor than life on the farm. The Sennerin was worried that I was bored, but I was actually quite content just to sit with the cat on my lap, looking out at the mountains. How could I not constantly look at the mountains up there? It was better than television.
The Sennerin loves her job and is clearly cut out for it. She really loves the cows. If the cows are happy, she’s happy—everything else is secondary. She brings the knowledge of having grown up on a small farm but has the worldly balance of having traveled and living in the city. We got on well together, and it was there on the Alm that I learned the most. It’s the thing that made the whole experience worth it. Totally worth it.

Day Twenty-One, or Say Cheese!:

I awoke once again to the tingling of cowbells through my earplugs. I could hear the repetitive thump-thump-thump of the butter churn, and I knew it must be about 5:30 or so. Not long after, I heard the farmer’s voice—I was surprised to hear him so early, but then I realized that he was here to teach us the next trick: cheese-making!

As the Sennerin finished up with the butter, the farmer explained how to finish this more successful batch. This time the cream had been pure, chilled to perfection, and left out an ideal 24 hours. And this time, after an hour, the Sennerin had a solid series of butter blobs thumping around in the churn. This time the butter had a nice, buttery consistency, and the Sennerin formed it into respectable butter shapes by molding it into a ball with her hands and then tossing it, omelette-style, in a wooden bowl. By flipping the butter, it should take a nice, smooth shape, force out any extra buttermilk, and ensure that it is nicely clumped together. Then the butter is wrapped in butter-paper or pressed into a butter mold.

Since driving the cows up to the high Alm, we’d already filled two 100-liter containers of milk! The first container was 3 or 4 days old and had been sitting out in the alpine hut to curdle. Now that the milk had soured for several days and a bucket places on the surface didn’t sink an inch, it was ready to use for cheese!

Every 10-12 liters of curdled, soured milk will produce about 1 kilogram of cheese. We scooped the chunky milk into a large pot and set it over the wood-burning stove. It was a bit revolting to see (and smell) all of the curdled milk, and I couldn’t help but wonder that mankind invented cheese at all! [For the story of how cheese came to be and other interesting matters involving salt, I would recommend the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky…] The sour milk is then heated on the stove to a temperature of 40°C (104°F); at 40°C, it is removed from the heat and allowed to sit for half a day. (When heated, some of the curdled milk separates and breaks down to become liquid again; this liquid is the whey, as in curds and whey.) Then, the chunky bits of the heated milk are collected into a cheesecloth with some salt and pepper, and the mixture is squeezed to get all the extra liquid out; the cloth is then regularly squeezed and turned and placed in a mold for the next several days until it forms and becomes real cheese.

Sadly, I wouldn’t be around to taste the first of the cheese. I left with the farmer and went back to the farm, where an afternoon of work in the herb garden awaited me. That evening I stepped under the showerhead for the first time in 72 hours. Although I hadn’t missed indoor plumbing or showers while up on the Alm, I was highly appreciative of it when I got back!

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