Switzerland’s alpine cheeses are always more expensive than their lowland cousins, but the price that cheese from the Val Piora high above Airolo in Ticino commands (about double that of Gruyère d’alpage) brings tears to the eyes of envious cheese making colleagues north of the Gotthard and guarantees Piora a place on any aspirational cheese board.
For my book Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture, a visit to this singular cheese’s homeland was clearly essential. From Signor Adriano Dolfini, secretary of the Corporazione di Boggesi whose members own the alp , I learnt that access by car is restricted. The obvious solution seemed to be Switzerland’s superbly joined-up public transport system, which reaches parts that other transport systems can only dream of. Travelling by train, post bus, funicular and on foot, I found I could leave Basel in the morning and be up in the Val Piora in time for supper. All I needed was somewhere to sleep on the alp, since cheese making always requires an early start.
I enlisted my friend Alwyn to join me on the adventure and booked us both in at the Capanna Cadagno, a mountain refuge five minutes from the caseificio (dairy). We packed rucksacks and boarded the train in Basel. Three hours later we emerged at Airolo station, where the post bus to Piotta awaited. From there it was a short walk to the foot of the Ritom funicular. We soared up, marvelling at the view of the valley below.
At the top we struck out towards the refuge in glorious evening sunshine, skirting the Lago Ritom, like a huge, deep blue infinity pool with its dam at one end and a range of distant peaks beyond.
An hour later we reached the simple, stone-built Capanna Cadagno, 1987 metres above sea level. Tired, happy and gleefully anticipating another cheesy adventure, we installed ourselves on the terrace outside the Capanna within sight of the caseificio. Over an epic supper of manzo brasato (braised beef) and crunchy, corny polenta, we were treated to front-row-of-the-stalls views of the dying sun as it sank below the jagged peaks to the west. As dusk gathered, we heard a chorus of cowbells, shouts, whistles and barking dogs beneath us, as the grey-brown cows were herded out of the dairy after the evening milking and up the track to spend the night on the alp.
At 8.30 next morning, we made our way across to the dairy, where cheese makers Paolo and his helper Filippo had already made a start. Paolo dipped the familiar dustpan-like plastic shovel deeply into the coagulated milk and raised it gently, experimentally to the surface. “Deve fare il sorriso!”, he said, “it has to smile”. Obligingly the curd broke open into a wide grin, indicating that it was ready to be cut, heated and stirred.
Paolo, originally from Bergamo in northern Italy, has worked on the Piora alp every summer for the past twelve years. Photographs displayed on the wall in a small parlour next door show how the cheese used to be made – in a simple, kitchen-like room in the classic copper vats heated over a wood fire, with the curds scooped up in huge squares of cheesecloth, drained of their whey and patted into moulds.
In 2004 the whole Piora cheese making operation shifted into another gear. A state-of-the-art caseificio was built, consisting of two long, low stone buildings with slate roofs, their architecture entirely in sympathy with the rugged alpine landscape. One is the milking parlour for the 240-odd cows, the other is the cheese dairy. It’s an impressively high-tech, stainless steel affair, bristling with taps, valves, hoses and hydraulic aids for processing the vast quantities of milk and cheese.
How did Paolo manage the transition from the old regime to the new? “Il primo anno – mamma mia!!” he moans, smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand as he recalls his first year in the new dairy, “so many pipes, so many taps!” In 2006 the Corporazione’s massive investment was rewarded, when 49 Ticino alpine cheeses – including Piora – gained the coveted Denominazione d’Origine Protetta or DOP.
Now Paolo seems entirely at home in his surroundings, activating the harps to cut the curd into small granules, raising the temperature to heat the curds, connecting hoses to pump them over into tall, straight-sided moulds, pressing and turning the cheeses. The final step, trimming the edges of the formed cheeses with a sort of dough scraper before they go down into the cellar to their salt bath, is about the only remaining manual part of what has become a highly mechanised, automated operation.
At the end of the season – 65 to 75 days long, between June and September, depending on the weather and the state of the grass – the cheeses are totted up and the year’s production (average: around 2700 cheeses) is tabulated laboriously in felt-tip pen on a homespun board hanging in the cellar.
Later the precious, greyish-brown Piora cheeses are distributed amongst the alp owners. The number they are allotted is directly related to how many cows they had on the alp, and the cows’ milk yield – it works out at roughly ten cheeses per cow. The owners are then free to dispose of the precious wheels at will. With the kind of prices Piora fetches, it must be tempting to sell at least some to affineurs or to restaurants, provided the cheeses fulfil the DOP regulations and are aged at least 60 days. But a few will certainly be kept back for private savouring with selected friends.
Down in the valley once more, we found we’d missed our post bus connection and the next one was not due for over an hour. A charming resident of Piotta, on her way back from tending her allotment, took pity on us and gave us a lift to Airolo station 10 minutes away. We regaled her with our Piora adventures. “Ayyyy,” she breathed, raising her eyes to the mountains above, “il famoso Piora – sure, it’s expensive, but you eat a little bit of that cheese and it’s as good as eating a piece of fillet steak!”
Once home, we unpacked our precious cheese and gazed reverently at it. Aged one year, the flesh was a pale, primrose yellow with a mild rash of pea-sized holes. We inhaled gentle barnyard aromas and detected faint hints of hay and mushrooms. The flesh was velvety-smooth and melting, the flavour rich, complex and long-lasting.
Was it worth twice as much as the other great alpine cheeses? How did the fillet steak analogy hold up? Did the earth move for us? Ruefully, I have to admit that the honest answer would be ‘maybe not’. What was priceless, though, was the total Val Piora experience. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.
[From Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture, by Sue Style, published by Bergli Books]