For the past twenty-three years, between June and early September, Ernst and Margrit Kübli have moved their Simmentaler cows from their farm in the valley up to an alp above Saanenmöser in the Bernese Oberland. The Chalet Horneggli, where they spend the whole summer, is the real deal, weathered and darkened by the years. From here you get sweeping views down to Schönried and Gstaad, whose five-star hotels and glitzy jewellery stores seem – indeed are – on another planet.
I first visited the chalet in 2009 to learn out about Ernst’s Berner Alpkäse and Hobelkäse, research for my book on Swiss farmhouse cheeses. Through the door from the front-room-cum-dining-room-cum-cheese-dairy, we’d glimpsed a cosy wood-panelled room. A silver tabby was curled up on the red-checked cover thrown over the double bed. This, they told us, was the Gästezimmer, and yes, they did B & B and we could come up and stay whenever we wanted.
It looked irresistible. One day, we promised ourselves, we’d go back and spend a couple of nights. It took us 3 years to get around to finally making a booking.”It’s pretty simple”, Margrit warned, a little nervously, “there’s no hot water and the toilet is outside, beyond the stall”. No problem, we said, we’d be fine.
We were indeed fine. In fact the weekend was unforgettable – and not only because there was no hot water, teeth had to be brushed in the sink in the front-room-cum-dining-room-cum-cheese-dairy, and the loo was an outside latrine (‘the long drop’), accessible only via the cows’ stall. We also managed a fabulous 5-hour hike, up the Rellerlibahn opposite the chalet, all along the ridge and back down again to Zweisimmen.
But what really made it special was that by staying a couple of nights in the chalet (rather than just blowing in for a couple of hours with notebook and camera), we could see the full alpine cheese-making picture and get a sense of the sheer hard graft that’s involved. Each day, Ernst and Margrit were up at 5.30 to round up the 27 cows, milk them, prepare the dairy for cheese making, break for breakfast (same every day, rye bread, Margrit’s home-made rhubarb and orange jam, lots of cheese, loads of cream), warm the milk, make the cheese, press the cheeses, muck out the stall, make hay, feed the pigs, have lunch, make more hay, get ready to milk again, turn the cows out onto the hill, have supper (more cheese) and then get to bed early, ready for an early rise.
It was a wonderful window into the world of alpine farming and dairying. To me, it’s little short of miraculous that in Switzerland – a wealthy, relatively sophisticated, rather urbanised country – there are still people prepared to decamp for months to the high pastures, doing the same tasks, day in, day out, in extremely simple (not to say spartan) conditions.
I sat there at breakfast at the scrubbed pine table, looking out through the red-and-white check curtains of the chalet onto shaved green hillsides, dark green pine copses and distant craggy peaks, nibbling on Ernst’s intensely delicious Alpkäse and savouring super-fine, almost transparent sheets of three year-old Hobelkäse. In every mouthful I could taste the love and skill that had gone into making it. These are truly special people, with fine values and great dignity, quietly sure of themselves and the worth of what they do.
Ernst and Margrit will come down again with the cows the last weekend of August. But in case you’re already making a mental note to book yourself in next summer, the bad news is that this is probably the last time that they will go up to the Chalet Horneggli to make cheese. “We’ve been coming up for the past 23 years”, says Margrit, “and it’s been wonderful. But the time comes for a change.” Their son Erhard, a trained carpenter, already helps them out at weekends, together with his girlfriend. The hope clearly is that he will take over and continue this fine tradition. “It’s up to him to decide, we won’t put any pressure on him”, says Ernst.
I’m crossing my fingers that come next summer, we can book into the Chalet Horneggli for another unforgettable stay.