Steven and I were looking forward to touring the Appenzeller (Cheese) Dairy in tiny Stein, Switzerland and learning how the famously pungent cheese was made earlier this month. However, the ‘tour’ was all self-guided and was as much of a PR production on the Appenzell regional culture and the cheese’s secret herbal brine that on cheese making as we’d hoped and were led to expect.
The town of Appenzell was postcard cute but the weather was pretty miserable which didn’t contribute to showing off its unique murals and painted buildings. Oh well – both were still worthwhile outings before we had to beetle back to Zurich and head by train to Interlaken. Click here https://bergersadventures8.blogspot.com/2021/10/10421-steins-appenzeller-dairy-tour.html to read on our main blog or just continue below.
All the best to you and your loved ones, Annie
Steven and I were the only ones staying in the guesthouse in the eastern Swiss town of Schonengrund though others were camping just up the hill at the campground run by the guesthouse owners.
One of the walls in the common room had some exquisite naive art like I’d viewed the day before at the Folk Art Museum in Stein. What I wouldn’t have given to carry one of those home with me!
There were also a couple of pieces of furniture that also would have looked right at home in the same folk art museum!
A Swiss postal carrier delivering mail by motorcycle – a little different from what we see back home, you’ll agree!
Our day of backtracking began with returning to the nearby village of Stein to tour the Appenzeller Dairy. When we had stopped there the afternoon before, we were advised to return when staff would be operating the machinery for a more worthwhile tour. We hoped it would be as driving back and forth over mountain passes took a chunk of time!
Sign of the times with Covid-19:
Little did we know until we returned that the tour was essentially self-guided as it involved using our phones to access information via the dairy’s QR code. We learned that what makes Appenzeller cheese that has been made in the Alps for 700 years unique is the traditional recipe and handicraft used by about 70 dairies and the secret herbal brine used to treat the cheese. Appenzellerland was an area that stretches from Alpstein to Lake Constance. The villages in the valleys consist of homes and settlements that are very spread out. One of the ‘secrets’ of Appenzeller cheese is “the broad, juicy meadows, in which all kinds of herbs and grasses grow” if you believe the marketing PR rep!
To make us feel more ‘connected’ with Appenzell cheese, there were ‘portraits’ of some of the top-producing cows who had been named like family members!
Since a dear friend from my youth was also called Angela, I was curious to learn more about Angela the cow! Angela was born in 2003 and is the oldest cow on the Buschel farm in Henau. In just her first 13 years, Angela supplied four times as much milk as an average dairy cow in its entire life – 100,000 kilos or 20 kilos per day! I had to smile when I read that Angela was pleasant and easy to handle but had a strong will!
As curious as we might have been on the cheese-making process, the information was laid on pretty thickly about the Appenzell region supporting its culture so intensively from the procession of the cows to the summer pastures in the Alps, a New Year’s Eve winter festival in which mask-wearing people go from house to house, etc.
Mountain dairy farmers and their cattle spend several weeks in the alpine pastures each summer, beginning in mid-May with the procession to the Alps led by costumed Appenzeller goats. They are followed by the chief mountain dairy farmer and his three best-looking cows who wear bells in tune with each other. For the procession to and from the mountain pastures, the dairy farmers wear brass-studded braces to keep their yellow pants in place, an elaborately embroidered red waistcoat, all topped with a hat decorated with flowers. The same costume is worn for a midsummer festival, weddings, and other public holidays.
Cows in the Appenzeller region produce 90,000 tons of milk used to make the Appenzeller brand of cheese. That corresponds to 90 million one-liter packs of milk that, if packed end to end, would stretch from Appenzell to Japan and back!
A normal Appenzell cow (not Angela of course!) will produce 7,297 kg of milk a year in ‘animal-friendly conditions.’ That compares to over 9,000 kg of milk by US cows. I know they’re not in such animal-friendly habitats.
Worldwide, the US produces the most cheese, at double the rate of Germany next in line and the other top producing countries of France and Italy. Although Switzerland produces far less cheese in terms of quantity, it is extremely productive in terms of the area of land used.
Over half of Appenzeller cheese is exported with Germans eating most of it, followed by France. As you might imagine, the Swiss are the world’s greatest consumers of cheese, eating on average 410 grams or close to a pound per week or about 48 pounds a year! Americans aren’t slackers in the cheese-eating wars as 34 pounds of cheese are enjoyed yearly. I know our family eats a ‘chunk’ of cheese but I wouldn’t think it was that much.
We watched a video in which a very folksy farmer talked about how he and his family consumed copious amounts of cheese when he was growing up because it was cheap and of his love of his cows saying they love it when you brush their backs! His sense of connection with his animals certainly seemed very apparent as each of his ‘Angelas’ was not just part of an anonymous herd in mega barns.
The dairy ‘tour’ also had a section on rustic or folk art painting and furniture like I’d seen in the Folk Art Museum next door the day before.
The Appenzeller Dairy was a demonstration dairy and one of 50 village cheese dairies that produce Appenzeller cheese in this region of Switzerland.
We finally got to the heart of the tour with viewing cheese being made which was why we’d schlepped all the way back to Stein first thing that morning. Perhaps, knowing the Swiss as I did after living in Geneva for a year, I wasn’t too surprised that so much emphasis was placed on Appenzeller cheese’s quality assurance. To assure the cheese’s high quality, the milk is tested several times before cheese production begins. The cheese is also checked during and after production. The label on each wheel of cheese represents visual identification features and a certified taxation label applied at the end stage.
We learned there are several varieties of Appenzeller cheese. Its mildly spicy is treated for at least three months with a secret herbal brine. If you believed the great marketing, the “idyllic hilly Appenzeller landscape with its herbal grass creates the optimal environment for the natural, strong raw milk used to make Appenzeller cheese.” The flavor could be recognized by its silver label. The Appenzeller Bio mildly spicy type is made with organic milk and has no different flavor than the regular mildly spicy type. It has the word Bio printed on its rind and label.
There were also both a strongly spicy and a Bio version of the same. Both types “owe their unique strongly spicy taste to the secret herbal brine which they are treated with for four or five months.” Not to be confused with strongly spicy, there was also an extra spicy which is guaranteed to have been stored for six months. After 5.5 months, ‘experts’ check the progress of maturity and select only the best samples of cheese. I thought it cute how the marketing staff declared the extra spicy ‘racy’ flavor was thanks to intensive treatment for half a year! The 1/4 fat spicy was described as being a particularly spicy specialty that acquires its meltingly firm to crumbly dry crust and an unmistakable tart flavor. It matures from six to eight months.
After 23,000 liters of milk are delivered daily to the dairy, it is stirred for many hours.
The pressing vat contained 80 forms to become cheese wheels. The cheese is characterized by its aroma, flavor, color, consistency, and appearance.
These looked like giant muffin tins to me!
For 700 years the strictly kept secret of the herbal brine has given Appenzeller cheese its unique herbal taste. We knew that the longer the cheese matures, the spicier its taste becomes. The recipe for the brine has remained unchanged for 30 years and is kept securely in a bank vault. Only two carefully selected craftsmen know the recipe. It is their responsibility to produce the brine and keep Appenzeller cheese unique.
We’ve all heard of wine cellars but a cheese cellar was new to my vocabulary. We discovered that young wheels of cheese are stored in the cheese cellar at a temperature of 13 degrees Celsius with a relative humidity of 93% for natural fermenting and maturing. 12,500 wheels of cheese can be stored on the spruce boards.
I would never have thought of all the work involved once the cheese was already produced – the wheels are washed with slightly salted water and turned every day during the first ten days and then two or three times a week. That saltwater bath helps to form the rind, the cheese’s protective layer, and encourages the cheese to mature from the inside out.
After about a month, the cheese wheels are passed on to the cheese merchants who regularly smear the ‘secret’ herbal brine over the cheese. The cheese then matures from three to nine months depending on how spicy the cheese is.
So that the secretive herbal brine can develop its strength, it is made with a large number of herbs grown organically in Switzerland and throughout the world. We were given small cloth bags in which we could choose put herbs of our choosing in from large dispensers. Adults and kids alike all had a blast filling those bags!
Of course, our ‘tour’ ended in the very aromatic gift shop but I found the cheeses too pungent for my taste. In hindsight, it had been an absolute waste of time not touring the dairy the afternoon before when we were there because we learned everything from the spiel in the recorded information and the display boards. We were strongly advised to return the next day so we would be able to the process of the cheese being made. In fact, we only saw one worker on the floor and learned nothing about cheesemaking after the milk is delivered and stirred. I would have liked to have known something about the process between the stirring and pouring into the molds and thereby actually becoming cheese!
From Stein, we backtracked to the town of Appenzell where we had only briefly stopped the day before. We felt like we were back in Colorado when there was a 30-degree temperature drop in about 10 hours. Not only was it downright chilly, but it was also drizzling too! Even the poor sheep looked miserable.
What a shame the weather didn’t cooperate with my picture-taking as it’s hard to imagine a cuter town than Appenzell with its gaily decorated homes and shops. The small town only has 6,000 inhabitants though it felt far bigger with its large buildings clustered along Hauptgasse.
Throughout town were flags and other images of its symbol, a scary-looking upright bear baring its teeth and sharp claws.
In between admiring the charming buildings on which were painted scenes that were like storyboards, we visited the excellent Appenzell Museum. The folk museum had many similar items to the one I’d visited the previous day in Stein but also enough different collectibles I wasn’t bored seeing two Swiss folk art museums in two days.
Right in keeping with tiny and cute-as-a-button Appenzell was the sweet Holy Cross Chapel on the main street which dated to the 1200s. After suffering many fires throughout the centuries, it was rebuilt each time in a different style. The current look was late Gothic with a neo-Gothic altar and a copper roof.
The last renovation took place in 1964 with the choir grille removed and new windows added. The crucifix was from the first half of the 18th century and the Stations of the Cross from 1788.
Even though the entire townspeople meet to vote on the town’s largest square, Landsgemeinfeplatz, Appenzell women weren’t able to vote on local issues until 1990. But Appenzell schoolchildren were the first in Switzerland to have English as a mandatory second language instead of French, one of the country’s official languages.
Impossible to miss in Appenzell because of its size and location was the Catholic Church of St. Mauritius that originated in 1069. Over its history, four churches have been built on the site, each church larger than the preceding one. The current church was a blend of a Gothic church constructed between 1488-1513, and more recent construction in the 19th century. St. Mauritius, the patron saint of the Appenzell Canton, was known as the patron saint of the army, the infantry, weaponsmiths, and weavers.
I couldn’t quite tell whether the dreary weather lent the church cemetery a sense of peace and finality or just the chills!
Before returning the car to Zurich, Steven and I thought we could squeeze in a quick drive to Wasserauen just five miles south of Appenzell, and the start of the lift up to Ebenalp,a high, rocky ridge at 5,380 feet above sea level.
We’d hoped we would have the time to take the gondola up to Ebenalp, getting a peek of its cave church on the way and also walking along the cliffside boardwalk at the top. It sounded like a really exciting experience but neither time nor weather worked in our favor. At least we only had to wait a few minutes before seeing a gondola take off and imagine what if.
I remember half-looking at the gondola and half-looking at the cows wondering if the din of the gondola right overhead bothered them.
I’m not sure I would have wanted to be going off into the cloudy yonder on that gondola!
The drive back to Zurich:
Hightailing it back to Zurich we passed through Urnasch and thought to ourselves, how pretty is this!
A glimpse of Zurichsee or Lake Zurich:
Coffee and a croissant anyone?!
After dropping off the car, we hopped on a train to Interlaken, our next port in the storm for three days.
After lugging our bags from the station to the hostel, we were pleasantly surprised by the enormous size of our room and even of the communal bathroom which was certainly far larger than ours at home. Having little Toblerone chocolates on the pillows was literally a sweet touch, the more so because I just had to eat both as Steven is allergic to chocolate!
There was also a fully-equipped kitchen with spices, oil, etc which we have found to be rare even in far swankier places that advertise kitchenettes.
Next post: If I get inspired it will be the excellent Appenzell (Folk Art) Museum or our first of many hikes in the Swiss Alps.
Posted on October 29th, 2021, from Montepulciano, Tuscany where we’re based for six nights so we can enjoy day trips through some drop-dead gorgeous towns and countryside.
2 thoughts on “10/4/21: Stein’s Appenzeller Dairy ‘Tour’ & Appenzell ”
Interesting cheese facts all round! Interlaken has long been on my list…not got there yet though..
If you’re thinking of visiting Interlaken one day wait a few days as I’ll write about our time in the town “between the lakes” and not just mountain destinations from interlock. I think you’ll find Interlaken far more to your liking than Geneva and Zurich.