Oimroas:1 Notes on a summer alpine journey

Matthäus Rest

It was around 9 pm when I arrived at the alp, just in time to catch the team of shepherds and cheesemakers finishing their dinner.2 A decade earlier, I had spent two summers making cheese at this mountain dairy myself. That night, there were six of them, half of whom I knew from a visit the previous year. ‘We always have 5 o’clock tea in the stable, if you want to get up that early’, Georg told me with a wink. 3 ‘Might as well’, I answered. My assigned bed was next door to the air compressor of the milking machine. In a stable with around a hundred cows that was quite a machine. So once milking started, sleeping would not be possible anyway. I had called in advance to ask whether I could take scientific samples of milk and dairy products for the interdisciplinary research project I had started working on a few months earlier. After dinner, as dusk was falling, I took a short walk around the empty stable and sat down on the old bench in front of the hut. Everything I touched felt so familiar.

The scientists who hired me to collect dairy samples are biomolecular archaeologists working in the fields of ancient DNA and proteomics. They are interested in the deep history of the complex relations between humans, food and microbes, and first and foremost in the prehistoric spread of dairying across Eurasia (Wilkin et al. 2020). Until recently, the archaeology of food had to rely on direct evidence, which was very scant, because most food does not preserve well. With the advent of ancient DNA and proteomics, this has changed. Now, microbial particles of food and food-related microbes can be extracted from teeth, cooking utensils and other archaeological finds. Recent advances in laboratory technology have brought down the cost of genetic sequencing to the point where it has become possible to detect the genetic traces of whole microbial communities in archaeological objects. My colleagues in bioinformatics then use this data to assemble metagenomes: the entire genomes of all the microbes present in the sample. This is not a trivial operation and, often, it is hard for them to know what to look for because they are missing a baseline of ‘clean, high-quality’ contemporary microbial genomes. This was why I had come back to my old mountain dairy: to collect dairy samples and the microbes that live in them.

When I entered the deserted kitchen shortly after 5 am, I realised that the biggest improvement in the past decade had been the introduction of an automatic espresso machine. With my coffee, I joined the team for a quick and quiet breakfast in the stable. While four of them were getting ready for milking, I followed Georg into the dairy to help him with the cheesemaking. He did not wait for the fresh milk and instead used the milk from the previous day.4 We started right away and by 7:30 am, the cheese was already in the moulds. I was surprised that he asked me to cut the curds and that, later, I would take the lead in removing the cheese from the vat, arguably the two most delicate work steps at the vat. With decades of experience, Georg was practising a very elaborate microbial assembly. In addition to two cultures from the state laboratory5 and the liquid rennet I had used in my practice, he also worked with dried calf stomach rennet, inoculated on a natural whey starter culture. Rennet is the umbrella term for a number of enzymes used to curdle milk at low temperatures. It is the main ingredient that distinguishes the majority of European from Asian cheese recipes. In Asia, most cheeses are made without rennet, but at much higher temperatures. Traditionally, rennet is sourced from the stomachs of slaughtered calves, kids and lambs. Young animals need these enzymes to digest milk. Today, the overwhelming majority of rennet is produced by genetically modified yeast. Most artisanal cheesemakers rely on liquid rennet produced from stomachs, while only a tiny fraction, like Georg, still process stomachs on site.

Compared to soft cheese recipes, alpine hard cheeses are made very quickly: it takes roughly two and a half hours until the curd is moved from the vat to the press, with five distinct work steps, each taking around 30 minutes: heating the milk to 32°C to add the rennet, leaving it to curdle, cutting the curd and stirring, scalding the curd (slowly heating to a temperature between 42°C and 57°C, depending on the specific cheese) and stirring again at this temperature. Georg sped things up even more; decades of experience had taught him where to cut corners without compromising quality and shelf life. Or at least, so he claimed.

Fig. 3.1 Extracting the curd with a cheesecloth (photograph by Matthäus Rest, June 2018)

While we were scalding the curd, he removed a bucket of whey and used it to wash a few strips of calf stomach and transform them into a new batch of rennet for the next few days. At 36°C, he inoculated the stomach strips in whey he had heated to 58°C, to kill off all but the most resilient thermophilic lactic acid bacteria. Then, he added seven millilitres of a mix of acetic acid and propionic acid ‘for initial acidification’. He let the open culture pot cool on top of the freezer in the hallway outside the production room. After about an hour, he put this rennet whey culture in the heat cabinet to incubate for 20 hours at 33°C. Back at the cheese vat, when the temperature reached 42°C, Georg turned off the steam valve and let the curd stir for 15 more minutes. Then, as we were getting ready to move the curd from the vat to the draining table, he turned on the cold-water valve used to regulate the heat in the vat. I had never seen anybody do that. He noticed my surprise and told me, with a mischievous smile: ‘I cool it down to 39°C before draining. That gives a longer dough’.6

Where have all the dairy microbes gone?

Reading the work of colleagues in anthropology who are also interested in cheese (for example West et al. 2012), I have wondered for a while now why their writing contains so little description of the physical activity of making cheese and the protocols enacted in the dairy. This is even more surprising given the importance that Heather Paxson (2012) and Harry West (2020) assign to craft, and Cristina Grasseni (2016) to skills. But maybe I have to blame my exposure to natural scientists for the blurred conceptual lines between lab and dairy, protocol and recipe. My time in microbiology labs in Oklahoma and Thuringia has taught me how similar the work of microbiologists and cheesemakers is on a bodily level. Despite the vastly different circumstances, both rely heavily on their senses and their working days are structured by microbial temporalities. Their everyday interaction with microbes is a skilful practice strongly guided by touch and smell (Ingold 2018). This leads me to the other surprising lacuna in the anthropology of cheese: where have all the dairy microbes gone? Despite the huge influence of Paxson’s (2008) notion of microbiopolitics on the anthropology of microbes, when it comes to her and others’ writing about cheese, the everyday relations between humans and beneficial dairy microbes play a minor role compared to the threat of potentially pathogenic bacteria. When making cheese, however, sensing the ‘good’ microbes in the milk, the starter cultures and the aging room is crucial. Becoming a cheesemaker means attuning one’s senses and daily rhythm to the microbes. During my summers working at the mountain dairy, my working days started at 4:30 am when I tested the starter culture and ended at 8 pm when I moved the new starter culture from the incubator to the cold-water bath (Rest, Moroşanu, and Frigo 2017).

After breakfast, Georg went back to the dairy to make butter while I joined the shepherds to build a fence up on the mountain ridge. I was happy to get out of the dairy, especially because making butter was my least favourite job there. Ten years earlier, one of the first work steps of every working day had been to pasteurise the cream from the evening milk. For this purpose, I would skim the top layer of the milk tank with a plastic ladle and heat the cream in the vat pasteuriser. Skimming the right amount of cream from one milking led to the right fat content in the cheese vat. After cooling the newly pasteurised cream, I added freeze-dried culture, poured it into large churns and stored them in the cold-water bath. Every third day, I poured the sour cream into the electric butter churn and turned it on. The noise of the churn was deafening, the timing so fickle, and after kneading and portioning 50kg of butter waiting in ice-cold water my hands were frozen and my shoulders strained.

Luckily, the shepherds really liked to knead the butter and joked that this was the best treatment for their chapped, dry hands. This still left me in charge of operating the churn while simultaneously keeping an eye on the cheese in the vat. Of all the dairy work, making butter in an electric churn is the most time sensitive. As soon as the butter starts to separate into tiny corns, you have to be next to the churn, waiting for the right moment to turn it off, drain the buttermilk and add fresh water to wash the butter. If the churn runs for a minute too long, the butter will clump together, trapping butter milk inside that you will not be able to remove. The high water content will severely shorten the butter’s shelf life.

But above all, I just found it sad to pasteurise the cream. Instead of making raw alpine butter, we produced standardised 5kg blocks of pasteurised butter, most of which the farmers would take home and transform into clarified butter, even further diminishing its typicality. The reason for this surprising de-valuation was a combination of nutritionism (Scrinis 2008) and microbiopolitics. For decades, it was hard to sell butter. Starting in the 1960s, nutritional scientists promoted the use of margarine as a healthier alternative to butter, leading to a general decline of butter consumption in the global North (Scrinis 2013). At the same time, food regulators convinced dairy farmers that raw cream was the most dangerous of all the dairy products, a substance teeming with pathogenic microbes. Consumers simultaneously grew to dislike the taste of raw, unpasteurised butter, often misunderstanding it for rancidity. Revisiting my notes from the cheesemaking course I attended in 2009 confirmed this: ‘pasteurisation of cream is essential, adding culture is good, cold storage is compulsory (so the fat can crystallise)’. The microbial danger is not an invention, but good milking hygiene and swift cooling can minimise this threat as well as potential off-flavours. But during this visit, I was out in the pasture, almost up on the ridge, helping to build the highest fence of the alp. Looking down on the dairy, I marvelled once again at the wonder of dairying: that, through the domestication of ruminants and microbes, humans have found a way to metabolise grass.

The ‘cheese consultant’

In the afternoon, while the others were milking, I washed the wheels in the aging room. The alp had a semi-automated machine with rotating brushes for this purpose, a bit like a tiny car wash for cheese wheels. It felt good to realise that the skill was still there. My body remembered its choreography with the machine and the cheese boards, each one holding three wheels; my arms, legs and back just doing their thing, my mind free to wander. Touching wheel after wheel, I thought of Michael, the ‘cheese consultant’ I was going to meet the following day, and how he had entered this aging room during a visit that summer ten years earlier. I had been eagerly awaiting his arrival. Michael was one of the people who taught me how to make cheese, and part of the education was the promise of a visit during the first two weeks in the mountains. So, when he finally stuck his head around the door of the production room one morning after the three most exhausting weeks of my life, I was very happy to see him.

At that point, a third of the shelves in the aging room were already full, and as he entered, Michael muttered a sound of surprised approval. It smelled right and he immediately saw that rind formation had been much faster than in many other dairies he had visited lately.7 ‘Oh wow – they are ready. Have you tried one already’? I replied that I hadn’t. ‘We’ll have to cut one, then’, he replied with a bright smile. As he started touching the wheels, his expression changed. ‘Too soft’, he murmured. ‘How hot did you cook the curd’? he asked as he turned to me. ‘42 degrees – I was told the farmers want the first batches to be ripe early’. ‘Ok, but you’re in week 4 now, you really have to increase the temperature, otherwise you’ll get yourself into trouble. Also, what about the fat content? Show me your butter fabrication documentation’. We moved back to the production room, and it took him only a cursory glance at my butter yield to conclude that the fat content was also way too high. So, in addition to increasing the temperature to 44°C, Michael ordered me to take better care of skimming the cream off the evening milk every morning. All of this he knew from smelling, touching and checking my documentation.

When we finally cut a wheel, it only confirmed what he had already told me. It was young cheese but ready for consumption – smooth, mild and buttery. He congratulated me on the good cheese I had made but repeated the changes necessary to my protocol. Washing and turning these wheels for one long summer, my hands learned what Michael’s touch had told him instantaneously: the differences in firmness between my earlier and later batches. It was indeed a fast cheese I had made, and it was one of the earliest to hit the local grocery store shelves. But this speed also created quite a headache for the farmers. While low scalding temperatures, high fat content and a warm aging room make cheese ripen fast, the downside of the bargain is that it over-ripens quickly, too. So suddenly, there were around 500 wheels of cheese that had to be sold off before the end of the summer. Ten years later, one of the farmers still remembered the ‘time bomb’ I had produced.

Right before dinner, Georg joined me and together we cut the first wheel of the season. ‘If you are meeting Michael tomorrow, you might as well bring along the samples for the lab tests’, he had told me earlier. The next morning, I left the alp at 5:30 am. Michael had told me to meet him at a train station further down the valley at 6:15 am. I arrived just in time to park my rental and hop into the small 4x4 Michael was driving, a sticker from the local agricultural school stuck on the door. I had not seen him in ten years, but his face had barely aged. He greeted me warmly and told me his schedule: he wanted to visit three alpine cheesemakers who had attended this year’s intensive cheesemaking course in the spring. Then as now, part of the package was a visit within the first weeks of the alp season. All of the alps were located on the northern slope of the main valley, but each about an hour’s drive apart. Michael represented the local alpine cheese authority.

The majority of the region’s cows spend their summers at high altitude, and a substantial amount of their milk is processed on site in dozens of artisanal dairies. These do not fall under the purview of general food inspection but under the guidance of Michael and his colleagues. Their work is pastoral in many ways. In the spring, they teach alpine cheesemaking at the agricultural school to new cheesemakers. In the summer, they visit the mountain dairies and help them improve their product. In the autumn, they attend the local and regional cheese tasting events and grade the product. They are called in if there are problems. And when they come, they take measurements with thermometers and pH meters and collect samples to be sent to the laboratory. But their main tools of investigation are their senses: with their nose, hand, mouth, eye and ear they detect the vast majority of cheese problems. From the perspective of dairy microbes, Michael and his colleagues are the quintessential biopolitical authority: they ‘make live and reject into death’ (Fassin 2009: 52; translation of Foucault’s phrase). The first thing I did was hand him Georg’s samples; before farmers are allowed to start selling the dairy products of the new season, every alp needs to send samples to the lab for microbial testing.

Heather Paxson (2008: 16) coined the term microbiopolitics to ‘call attention to the fact that dissent over how to live with microorganisms reflects disagreement about how humans ought to live with one another’. She develops the concept in her ethnography of raw milk cheesemakers in New England and their conflicts with hygiene authorities. In many regions of the United States, raw milk has been practically outlawed for decades. Even those who use raw milk seem to be working almost exclusively with laboratory-grown freeze-dried starter (ibid.: 129). In the summer pastures of the Alps, however, pasteurisation has never been fully implemented and many cheesemakers still use other cultures, like the state laboratory cultures of my interlocutors. In the summer pastures, turning raw milk into cheese is first and foremost an exercise in taming highly mysterious entities without the help of laboratory analysis or modern equipment like pH meters. In most mountain summer dairies, the only biochemical device at hand is a simple acidity test through titration to establish the sourness of the starter culture every morning. But before that, and much more important, are the senses of the cheesemaker – what older Swiss cheese manuals call ‘Sinnenprobe’: a probing by sensing.

Through steady testing of taste and smell, the biological purity of a bacterial culture can be evaluated with sufficient certainty. Through steady sensual examination the cheesemaker will quickly develop a routine, so that an unwanted change will become apparent immediately. The healthy whey culture has a mild-sour smell and taste and a yellowish-green colour. Bacteriologically contaminated culture (infection with yeasts or coli) is always cloudy and has a cidery or stinky smell and taste (Inforama 2011: 51; translation MR).

During my first summer as a cheesemaker, my whey culture was the first thing I put in my mouth every morning. Right after making a fire, I would get the thermos with the culture from the previous day, discard the greyish top layer and pour a small amount into a cup. Then I smelled and tasted it and tried to guess the acidity (in Soxhelt-Henkel degrees) before I did the titration test. After a few weeks, my daily guess was mostly accurate.

Cultural anxieties

‘Tell me about your research’, Michael asked as we drove towards the first alp. I explained the basics of the Heirloom Microbes project and how a group of biomolecular archaeologists ended up hiring me, a social anthropologist and amateur cheesemaker, to collect dairy samples for them. ‘My colleagues’ basic interest lies in better understanding the spread of dairying in prehistory. The current consensus in archaeology is that dairying emerged around 10,000 years ago in the northern Levant. About 5,000 years ago, dairying arrived in present-day Mongolia. But how it got there is still poorly understood. Was this a story of diffusion or are we talking about several domestication events, especially when we think about camels, horses and reindeer? Now, my colleagues are archaeologists, but they work with the methods of genetics and proteomics, so they are interested in the ‘archaeology of the invisible’ as one of them likes to say. Microscopic traces of milk proteins or dairy microbes are enough for them to establish their presence in the archaeological record. But especially when it comes to the microbes that live in milk, my colleagues came to the realisation that it is actually the modern baseline that they are missing: as you might know, there is very little genetic data published on dairy microbes, even less so when we look at non-industrialised dairying. From that lacuna, my colleagues decided to look for someone to collect modern samples, but also assess their cultural significance. The cultures as well as the cultures of cultures, if you will’.

Michael’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. ‘That sounds absolutely fantastic. Where did you make cheese again’? I mentioned the name of the alp. ‘Ah, in that neck of the woods. Quite a community up there. And their new cooperative dairy, what a mess…’. He would return to the issue later. All the way up to the dairy just below 2000 metres above sea level, we drove on perfectly smooth tarmac while every 100 metres we crossed the lancet of a fixed snow cannon, rising forlorn in the July sky; this alp was at the centre of a major ski resort. Looking at the snow cannons, and with bitter irony, Michael told me that the neighbouring alp was denied permission to build a new goat shed for environmental reasons.

As we pulled in, two milkmen were hosing down the tarmac in front of the dairy. The vast terrace of the restaurant next door was still deserted. Obviously, they had just finished cleaning the milk parlour. In the dairy, Markus and Johannes were in the process of gently warming the milk to 32°C in order to add the rennet. Markus has been making cheese here for the past 20 years and he seemed really fed up with the place. The dairy was small but practical, with an adjacent kitchen, including a fully automated espresso machine. We shook hands and Markus started by telling us how much he was looking forward to leaving this place to look for a smaller alp; fewer cows, fewer farmers, fewer tourists. This one belonged to a municipality that forbade him to do small repairs by himself because they have municipal workers for that. But when something had to be fixed urgently, it took them days to come. The people from the restaurant next door put mouldy cheese in his aging room and did not understand why this upset him. And there were hundreds of tourists every day. Michael listened to it all, took a pH measurement of the cheese from the day before – ‘Perfect’ – and asked about the cultures. Suddenly, Markus became very insecure. He told us he used four different cultures for his cheese, to be on the safe side. They were three different state laboratory cultures, one of which he incubated to two different levels of acidity. This was the first time I had heard of anyone doing this – the official recommendation was to use two different cultures.

When I say state laboratory cultures, I refer to a rather unique microbial culture management system that developed in the Alps over the second half of the twentieth century. At its centre are state-funded biobanks that distribute starter cultures to artisanal producers. In most cases, these cultures arrive in liquid concentrate form, unlike the cultures of commercial suppliers that are freeze-dried and therefore much more stable. Cheesemakers like Markus or Georg order the concentrates by mail and they arrive in small plastic bottles once a week. They contain different mixes of lactic acid bacteria strains for specific cheese recipes based on ‘reconstituted skimmed milk’, i.e. sterilised milk from powder. Every day, cheesemakers pasteurise a few litres of their milk, inoculate it with a few pipettes of the concentrate and incubate the culture at around 40°C for eight hours, before storing it in cold water overnight.

Michael reassured Markus that everything was okay, as it always had been. Johannes seemed somewhat the opposite of Markus: young, confident and cheerful. He spent his winters working as a ski instructor, and while he was the reason for our visit – after all, he had taken the course to replace Markus for the next season – he received relatively little attention. After the curd set, however, Markus insisted they did not use their automatic wire cutter as usual and that, instead, they cut the curd by hand. While the two men did their dance of cutting around the vat, my lingering feeling became apparent: Markus was not very good at being satisfied – not with himself and not with others; he second guessed every movement his young assistant made. Soon after they had cut the curd, we said our goodbyes and got back in Michael’s car.

After we reached the bottom of the valley, we followed the main road up the valley for the second alp visit. As we got to the upper part of the valley, I asked him again about his earlier comments – was he referring to the problems around the new cooperative village dairy? He told me his version of the story. There was a well-established small-scale dairy in one of the villages. But the farmers did not trust the cheesemaker anymore. Mostly because he got rid of a batch of ‘bloated’ cheese by throwing it in the river. Nowadays the most common reason for bloated cheese on the press is contamination by antibiotics. Therefore, accidentally adding the milk of cows treated with antibiotics is the most severe threat to alpine dairying. Through millennia of living with humans, the most common dairying microbes have shed many of their defence mechanisms and become highly vulnerable to tiny amounts of antibiotics. But not all bacteria are as sensitive to antibiotics as our good old lactic acid friends. Coli bacteria, for example, are not that bothered.

Now what happens in the cheese vat when the cultures have been wiped out and the cheesemaker proceeds to warm the milk, add rennet, cut the curds, cook the curds and finally move the cheese to the press? Total coliform bacteria bloom. With no lactic acid bacteria there will be no acidification. And acidification is the main reason why fermentation is such a safe process when it comes to preserving food for humans. Except for the lactic acid bacteria and yeasts that thrive in these sour environments, microbes cannot survive low pH-values. In cheese, coliform bacteria metabolise lactose into formic acid. As side products, they produce CO2 and H2 that forms small holes, hence the sponginess of bloated cheese.

A few days later, a group of tourists found the cheese in the river. ‘They were actually trying to pan for gold. Just imagine their faces when they found all those wheels of cheese in the river’. The local political establishment tried to save face and the dairy by putting the blame on the mountain dairies, even though everybody knew what was going on. Michael was called in after the scandal broke, but as soon as he started to ask questions in the community, his superiors told him to stop – his job was quality control, not investigative journalism. It was clear from the beginning that it could not be cheese from the high pastures because of the lot numbers that come with every wheel. Years later, as we drove towards the new dairy, he was still visibly upset that somebody tried to put the blame for this bloated batch on alpine cheesemakers. Obviously, the relationship between the farmers and the cheesemaker had already been bad, otherwise he would have surely found a better way to discard the bad batch than throwing it in the river in the dead of the night. Therefore, it was decided that a new dairy would be built in a different village. But it was on much too large a scale and lacked a proper plan. The project was completely resistant to advice from people like Michael.

‘Take for example their plan to also process goat and sheep milk. A great idea in principle. But for that they bought a 500-litre vat right away! I told them: start small, but no. And then they increased the milk hygiene standards to a level that meant practically nobody in the region could sell their milk to them! One large sheep farmer now sells all his milk to a dairy in the lowlands. And then the architecture! People say it looks like a crematorium! If that was in Tyrol,8 it would look totally different. People would love to visit and have a coffee on the terrace, but this looks like an air-raid shelter! In the end, they would have gone bankrupt, had a large food corporation not bailed them out. The farmers got three million in subsidies and now tanker trucks full of milk drive up from the lowland every day to keep it going. So, in the end, the taxpayer has spent millions subsidising one of the largest players in the food industry’.

By way of conclusion: Making cheese as a practice of attunement

As we visited the two remaining alps, I again watched Michael use all his senses to assess cheese quality. Like Markus and Johannes had done, here too it seemed like he used the pH meter mostly to reassure the cheesemakers that everything was alright with their product, not because he needed the readings. While asking how they had settled in, he would casually lower the back of his hand to the whey surface in the vat to gently touch the moving curds. As when he had visited me a decade earlier, he would quickly lift a few wheels in the aging room to feel their touch and to check whether they had been properly washed and moved every day. His hand and nose would tell him how long it would be until the first wheel could be cut. Like making cheese itself, consulting cheesemakers and controlling their work is a skilful practice of attunement (Sariola and Rest 2020). While Michael represented the state, his official title of ‘alp consultant’ was not a euphemism. For in order to do his surveillance work as hygiene authority, his disciplinary power relied less on the threat of punishment than on the promise of improvement. Follow his advice and you will become a better cheesemaker.

While recent ethnographic work has produced detailed accounts of many aspects of artisanal cheesemaking, the work at the vat and in the aging room has attracted rather limited attention. Most importantly, the engagement with microbes has been strongly framed through conflicts around food safety and the opposing ontologies of hygiene authorities and raw milk cheesemakers. While the threat of microbial infections was a constant topic in my cheese education, during my practice I was much more afraid that I would get up one morning to find that my culture had not acidified than I was of an infection of Listeria monocytogenes. So, I was more concerned with the fragility of the beneficial microbes than the power of the pathogenic ones. While these are certainly two sides of the same coin, it makes a difference which microbes we are with in our anxieties. In my understanding, making raw milk cheese is a practice of attuning one’s senses and daily rhythm to these lactic acid bacteria.

Still, Listeria came up during my time with Michael, if only at the very end. He did not have time for a late lunch, so we ended our tour with a bottle of soda in the parking lot of a DIY and garden centre. ‘On the way home I have to quickly swing by a farm in the lowlands with suspicion of Listeria and the samples have to go to the lab tonight’, he apologised. I must have looked alarmed, so he continued: ‘most probably it’s not Listeria monocytogenes, but a less dangerous form. Still, we have to take these threats very seriously’. His handshake was firm and warm. On the way out of the valley, I stopped at a motorway rest area, put on surgical gloves, and started to subsample the milk I had collected at the three dairies. Aliquoting each sample into a number of tiny 1.5ml tubes without a pipette, I was once again surprised at the skills I was developing on this journey from the lab to the mountain dairy and back. I then put the tubes in the mobile freezer in the boot of the car, where I had already stored a whole range of samples from my stay at Georg’s alp.

Frozen as they were, milk, yoghurt and milk starters were indistinguishable, but the whey samples stood out for their greenish colour. There I realised that I had forgotten to sample Georg’s butter, having been eager to get out of the dairy and join the shepherds to build a fence on the ridge. Attunement at the alp also means constantly shifting your focus of care between vat, milk tank and aging room; pasture, kitchen and stable; cows, pigs and chickens. If this practice of attunement succeeds, grass becomes milk through animals. About an hour later, I arrived in the city where I had arranged to store the sample tubes in a friend’s freezer before heading off to a different region. The next morning, on the way back to my rental car, I walked past a bus stop with a billboard. The ad read: ‘100g Butter contains: 100% real taste, 0% artificial ingredients. Butter. Ingeniously simple’. To my taste, that felt rather simplistic.


1 ‘Oimroas’ literally translates ‘alp journey’. In the dialect I grew up with, the term refers to a hike across the mountain pastures with frequent stops at different cabins to try the local products.

2 In the Alps, the mountain pastures used for grazing livestock during summer are called Alp (Romansh, Swiss, and South Western German), alpage (French), Oim/Olm (Austrian and Bavarian German), Alm (Standard German), alpeggio (Italian), mont/munt (Ladin), or planina (Slovenian).

3 All names have been changed.

4 Generally, the recommendation for alpine raw milk cheese is to process the milk as quickly as possible. Therefore, in most dairies, cheesemaking only starts after all the morning milk has been collected.

5 I will talk more about these below.

6 In German, cheese dough [Käseteig] refers to the cheese’s texture. The longer the dough, the smoother the texture.

7 Rind formation is especially tricky in the alpine summer dairies, where cheesemakers start with an empty aging room that is often also slightly too cold.

8 Tyrol here stands for a region that has a lot of experience with agrotourism and marketing.


I thank the Kilpisjärvi Collective and Christine Moderbacher for comments on earlier drafts of this text.


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