One of the best ways to sniff out small-scale, local cheeses is to track down a first-rate cheese shop in the neighbourhood and see what they recommend. It was during a behind-the-scenes visit to Hansjürg Wüthrich’s Sennerei in Pontresina, an Aladdin’s cave of local and international cheeses, that I first heard of Chatrina and Peter Mair, cheese makers in Tschlin [pictured above, photo by the wonderful Nikos Kapelis who illustrated my book on Swiss farmhouse cheeses]. “Sensationeller Schafkäse!” (‘sensational sheep’s milk cheese’) breathed Wüthrich, “you have to go and see them!”
Tschlin is a speck on the map in the lower Engadine, about as far as you can go in Switzerland before tipping over its southeastern edge into Austria. The village amounts to not much more than a cluster of classic sgraffito-decorated houses, a beautiful medieval church, a small hotel, a village shop – and Chatrina and Peter Mair’s cheese dairy.
The dairy’s name is Che Chaschöl – meaning, roughly, ‘wow, what cheese!’ in Romansh, which you still hear widely spoken all along the valley. (Romansh, of which there are several local variants, is one of Switzerland’s four official languages.) The Mairs took over the dairy and started work here in 2006. “To make artisan cheese, you’ve got to be a bit of an idealist!”, acknowledges Peter, “you have to be convinced about what you’re doing – and you don’t count the hours.” For the Mairs, this means days that start at 6 a.m. and seldom finish before 9 p.m. “We love what we do – our two boys are grown now, we have time!”.
They make goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s milk cheeses with milk from two organic smallholders in the village, both of them within walking distance of the dairy. The animals are milked twice daily, and the evening milk spends the night in perfectly refrigerated conditions: the churns are set in the ice-cold village fountain, refreshed throughout the night by a steady trickle of water fed by a mountain spring above the village.
The goats are hardy, stripey-faced Bündner Strahlenziege and the cows silvery-grey Rhätisches Grauvieh – both of them rare breeds, indigenous to this steeply mountainous area and protected by the Swiss foundation Pro Specie Rara. The Mairs set great store by sourcing their milk from local farmers who raise animals that are indigenous to this region. It’s a real partnership with the Bergbauer (mountain farmers), a concrete way of supporting them as well as sustaining these rare breeds which would otherwise die out.
For the sheep’s milk cheese called Terna (the Romansh word for ‘basket’, in which the cheeses are formed) the fountain-chilled evening milk is combined with the morning milk. The milk is pasteurised (heated to 72C for 15 seconds) before cheese making begins. Seeing my raised eyebrow and doubtful expression (I confessed to being a raw milk fan), Chatrina explained their decision to pasteurise the milk. “It’s very simple: I’m not a trained cheese maker and I’ve had to learn everything from scratch, on the job, since we started four years ago. Raising sheep and goats is also something fairly new for our two suppliers”. It seemed sensible to start out with the safety net of pasteurisation, she explains, adding that in due course the plan is to move over to raw milk.
Once pasteurised, the milk is cooled so that it’s ready to receive the starter culture and the rennet. When the creamy milk has reached setting point, Chatrina cuts the curd with a hand-held cheese harp, then completes the cutting by dragging a plastic cheese shovel gently and rhythmically back and forth through the curds. Some of the whey is drawn off and replaced with an equivalent volume of water to slow down bacterial reproduction in the vat – cheese is a veritable bacteria incubator – and reduce acidity.
The curds are distributed between small plastic colander-like baskets set out on the stainless steel draining table. Chatrina cups her hands over the curds, pressing them down firmly into the baskets so that the finished cheeses will be attractively striated, like cheeses moulded the old-fashioned way in rush baskets. Then she leaves them to drain for a few hours while she gets on with other cheeses – in a day, Chatrina makes three, sometimes four different kinds.
Later the Ternas will be brined for about ten hours before they embark on their eight-month ageing process in the cellar. At the start they will be brushed daily with a mixture of salt water and beer brewed in Tschlin’s microbrewery (another artisanal business in this miniscule village). “It’s not for the flavour of beer – you can’t really taste it when the cheese is ripe”, Chatrina reassures me, “it’s to give the rind its beautiful, lightly tanned colour”. After eight months the Ternas are ripe for eating, but they’ll keep for a year or more.
We gathered around the kitchen table and nibbled on slices of Chatrina’s one year-old cheese. It lived right up to Wüthrich’s advance billing. The richness of the sheep’s milk was balanced by just the right degree of acidity, the texture mildly crumbly and not too dense, the flavours lingering and complex. Che chaschöl!
Tel. 0041 (0)81 866 35 01
[Text and scanned photos from my book Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture, published by Bergli Books Basel]