Willi Schmid in Lichtensteig in Switzerland’s Toggenburg is one of the country’s most innovative cheese makers. But he’s not alone…[originally published in FT Weekend]
SURFING THE NEW SWISS CHEESE WAVE
Willi Schmid, artisan cheese maker, was one of eight children growing up on the family farm in the rolling, prealpine farmland of the Toggenburg in eastern Switzerland. Fascinated from an early age by the mysteries of milk’s leap to immortality, he left school to go straight into the cheese business, working his way around the country learning to make some of the classic varieties – Tilsiter, Appenzeller, Emmentaler, Sbrinz – for which Switzerland is famous. After a few years’ practical experience, Schmid decided to delve into the science of cheese making and went back to dairy school where he developed a passionate interest in microbiology – he refers to it affectionately as ‘Chäferli-Wissenschaft’ (‘beetle science’.)
His first independent venture was in partnership with another cheese maker, which ended in disaster and left him vowing never to go near a cheese vat again. After a two-year stint on a building site in Zurich (‘never made so much money for so little work’, he remarks wryly – and somewhat surprisingly) he was finally tracked down by Rolf Beeler, celebrated affineur and champion of Swiss farmhouse cheeses, who urged him to think again. In 2006 he found suitable premises in Lichtensteig on the edge of the Toggenburg and set up on his own (photo of the Städtlichäsi dairy, right by Nikos Kapelis.)
Five years down the line, Schmid is making around 30 different raw milk cheeses – hard, semi-hard and soft, from cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk, all sourced from local farms. ‘Surely’, I gaped when we met recently in his shoebox-sized cheese dairy, ‘you can’t have created them all since 2006?’ ‘Well in fact,’ he said, giving me a shy, sideways smile, ‘it only took me a month – I had all these ideas in my head, I just needed to try them out.’ His plan was to start with small quantities and test the market. Once he saw how things were going, he would concentrate on the ones that sold and forget the rest. In the event his new creations all rolled off the shelves. Nowadays he’s struggling to keep abreast of demand.
Beeler describes Schmid as ‘probably the best cheese maker in the country’. But while Schmid is certainly leading the pack, he’s not the only innovator. ‘It’s crazy the progress that’s been made in the past few years’, he acknowledges. The turning point for the Swiss cheese world came in the 1990s when cheese making, which had been under central government control for almost a century, was finally deregulated, releasing a burst of creativity amongst a new generation of cheese artisans. And breaking away from the classic, hard, cooked types that have made Switzerland’s reputation, the innovators are making soft, bloomy-rind cheeses (in the Camembert mould) and stinky, washed-rind varieties (think Munster, but milder), along with goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses. Even a few Swiss blues are making a cautious debut.
It’s invidious to single out any of Schmid’s cheeses; each one is distinctively delicious. When pressed to name his own favourite, the cheese Meister admits to a soft spot for Bergmatter a medium-sized semi-hard cheese which he describes as one ‘für Liebhaber’, for real enthusiasts – just as well, for production is tiny, limited to the winter months between November and April.
With its deep brown, wonky, wrinkly rind, Bergmatter looks every inch the cheese for real enthusiasts: no mechanised process could ever produce something so delightfully anarchical, so utterly unique. The gnarled rind conceals a smooth interior, buttery yellow with a rash of pea-sized holes. The smell takes you straight up into the hayloft, with gentle wafts of manure thrown in. In the mouth it’s smooth, gently yielding, with layers of rich, long-lasting flavour.
Another favourite is Bergfichte. With just a whiff of its pinkish smeared rind and bracing spruce band and a taste of its silky flesh, you’re instantly transported up into the Toggenburg hills dotted with tall Norway spruces, their branches bent low under the burden of freshly fallen snow. Slice away the peachy-orange upper crust and dig into the ivory flesh with a spoon. In texture and taste, it’s a cross between Vacherin Mont d’Or and Reblochon, succulent and creamy with a real mountain flavour.
Most celebrated of all is Schmid’s Jersey Blue, which walked away with the top prize in the 2010 World Jersey Cheese Awards. Made from rich, full-cream milk from a local Jersey herd, it’s somewhat similar in size and shape to a slightly lumpy Christmas pudding, with a delicate, greyish, bloomy rind. The flesh is marbled with random streaks of blueish-green. It’s dense, smooth and sweetly creamy on the tongue, with none of Roquefort’s sharp saltiness of and all the raw-milk complexity that’s somehow lacking in modern Stilton.
Look out for these new wave cheeses on the cheese trolleys of Switzerland’s top restaurants and in specialist cheese stores and fine food shops throughout the country. In the UK, try KäseSwiss, who have a good range of Swiss farmhouse cheeses at their stall at Borough Market in London. In the US, thanks to importer Caroline Hostettler, they can be found at places like the French Laundry, Garry Danko’s and Joel Robuchon Las Vegas, in countrywide branches of Dean & De Luca and Whole Foods, and at Artisanal and Murrays in New York.
- Willi Schmid, Lichtensteig (Jersey Blue, Bergmatter, Bergfichte + more)
- Josef Barmettler, 6370 Stans (Stanser Fladä, Stanser Röteli)
- Michel Beroud, 1659 Rougemont (Fleurette/Tomme de Vache au Lait Cru)
- Regula Zwicky, 2354 Goumois (Bleu de Brebis)
- Peter & Chatrina Mair, 7559 Tschlin (Biochafsmilchkäse Terna)
- Didier Germain, 2316 Les Ponts de Martel (Bleuchâtel)
- François Jaquet, 1666 Grandvillard (Le Vieux Chevrier)
GOING FOR GOLD IN SWITZERLAND
Bet you didn’t know that saffron is grown in Switzerland – albeit in minuscule quantities. Thanks to Josef-Marie and Marlis Chanton who have some saffron fields in Mund in the Valais, we were recently able to take part in the precious harvest.
High above Brig in Switzerland’s southernmost canton of Valais is a tiny village named Mund. At first sight there’s nothing remarkable about the place – a few houses with neatly tended vegetable patches, a handful of typical Valaisan wooden storage huts (Spycher), a primary school, an ancient and a modern church. But in the 1980s, Mund shot to stardom on account of its one product: saffron.
Records show that the precious spice has been cultivated here since the 14th century, but over the centuries production dwindled to almost nothing. By the mid-1950s, saffron cultivation seemed doomed to become a distant folk memory.
It took the construction, in 1979, of an incongruous, unsightly road snaking up to the village from Brig in the valley below to breathe new life into the saffron story. The inhabitants of Mund were signally unconvinced by the supposed benefits that would come from a new road, which was deemed too big, too ugly and altogether surplus to people’s needs. Worse still, it transpired that a swathe of the best saffron fields – which hardly anyone was aware of at the time, and apparently cared less about – would be intersected in no less than three places by the hairpin bends of the offending highway.
A militant band of Mund-dwellers and local enthusiasts swung into action with a plan to resurrect the village’s ancient tradition of saffron-growing. A Safranzunft or saffron-grower’s guild was born. Potatoes were pulled up, goats and sheep were removed to adjoining pastures and the steep, sandy hillsides were planted with countless bulbs of Crocus sativus. Their efforts made no difference to the construction of the road, which went ahead anyway. But it turned out to be the unlikely catalyst that led to the renaissance of the now famous saffron of Mund.
Before the road was ever mooted, saffron production is thought to have stood at around 20 grams. By 1982 this had rocketed to 400 grams. Nowadays there’s talk of a total harvest of somewhere between 2 and 4 kilos, though discretion here (as in other aspects of Swiss life) is the order of the day.
Four kilos is not a whole lot of saffron. Worldwide around 300 tonnes are produced with Iran leading the field, swiftly followed by Spain – together these two produce about 80% of the global saffron harvest. But these precious few kilos of saffron from the Swiss Alps have been enough to launch the village of Mund in popular perception. And the saffron cultivators increase in number every year.
Some are Mund residents whose day jobs are down in the valley. Others, like Josef-Marie and Marlis Chanton, wine-growers in Visp, are enthusiasts who’ve been in on the saffron story from the start and are delighted to see this ancient tradition revived. I joined them the last weekend of October to help pick some of the precious blooms. We parked the car on the side of the contentious road, let ourselves in through a gate and scrambled up a steep path. Soon, in the scruffy, sandy soil of the almost vertical hillside, interplanted with rye (‘to help prevent soil erosion’, explained Marlis), we began to spot the beautiful pale mauve blooms streaked with deeper purple.
There’s a painfully short window for the harvest, explained Marlis, typically from around mid-October till the end of the month. We stooped to pinch out the blooms one by one and laid them reverently in our basket – thirty flowers from one small field, twenty-seven from another. For one gram of dried saffron (the little sachets of dried saffron typically weigh one-tenth of a gram) you need about 150 blooms.
The stigmas – almost always 3, sometimes 4 and very rarely 5 – hang out between the petals like little tongues, deep rusty red in colour and wholly devoid – at least at this stage – of any aroma. The fabulous perfume of saffron develops only when the stigmas are laid out to dry, a process that was carried out traditionally in Mund on top of the tiled wood-burning stove in the front room. Just imagine the smell!
Before we left, Marlis pressed a tiny envelope of the precious stigmas into my husband’s hands, dried from last year’s harvest. ‘Make it into a tea’, suggested Marlis, ‘it’s wonderful for the digestive system’. Tea? You have to be joking. I haven’t told him yet, but I have other plans for my husband’s stigmas – a succulent risotto maybe, or a fragrant, seafood-infested paella or even a lightly sweetened loaf, richly golden with the precious spice.
AUGUST 1 BRUNCH ON THE FARM
Every year in Switzerland there’s a big tradition of Brunch on the Farm on August 1, Swiss National Day. One of our favourites is held annually in Beatenberg (left) on the von Allmen farm. We’re not the only ones who love it – annually some 500 people book in and turn up for the feast. Herr von Allmen offers his beautifully spruced up barn and tons of trestle tables and benches; the brunch is organised and provided by members of the village Trachtverein, the association that keeps alive the tradition of typical Swiss costume and traditional dances.
The drill is as follows: you buy your ticket in advance, then hand it over and make for the long serving tables in the huge barn, set out among the (pristine) grass-cutting machines and within sight of the (also pristine) milking parlour. Then you move along the line to compose your brunch. There’s ham, sausages, eggs (over 200 are cracked open each year), the obligatory Rösti (more than 100 kilos of spuds are boiled, peeled, grated and freshly fried), hunks of fragrant alp cheese made from milk from the cows that graze the alpine pastures above the village each summer, and little dumpy Mutschlis (pictured left).
This being Switzerland, almost everything is home-grown or home-made – no self-respecting Beatenberg brunch provider would be seen dead sloping off to the local Migros for provisions. To go with the beautifully braided Züpfe (braided milk bread) and stout loaves of Burebrot (farmers’ bread), there’s sweet butter and bilberry and apricot jam. Herbal teas are offered, sweetened with honey from local hives. Even the Birchermuesli is home-made.
Outside the barn under an awning the local Ländlermusik quartet strikes up, and familiar strains of piano accordeons and double bass ring out.
Two little girls dressed up in typical costume with assorted hats put on an impromptu dance in the straw, spreading their skirts and bowing solemnly to one another.
There’s nothing like a real August 1 Brunch to get the full flavour of Switzerland –
don’t miss it!