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Christian's visit to the cheese dairy

The Prättigau organic cheese dairy – a visit with the cheese maker

The cheese course remains an essential component of any menu, generally consisting of a selection of soft, hard, semi-hard and red mould cheeses. But how is cheese actually produced? We don't often think about what goes on in a cheese dairy and exactly where the cheese comes from. Early one morning, wanting to conduct an in-depth investigation of all this, we set off from Zurich to visit the cheese dairy in the Prättigau valley.
Arriving at half-past eight, we are naturally far too late. Sort of. Markus Racine, the cheese maker at the organic cheese dairy, has taken pity on us and postponed cheese production for a while. He didn't want to be so hard on us city-dwellers as to tell us we had to set off at five o'clock in the morning. Such an early start holds no terrors for a cheese maker like Markus Racine: it's simply part of his daily routine. Until 2016 he spent decades producing his speciality, wonderful soft cheeses made from sheep's, goat's and cow's milk – initially up the mountain, later in his own tiny cheese dairy. After making cheese early in the morning he used to start his secondary job as a carriage driver taking people – including stars like Madonna – up to Davos. But since the spring of 2016 he has been employed by the Prättigau organic cheese dairy. He handed his cheese dairy over to the local cooperative. This gives him more space, and in the new building he can devote himself entirely to cheese.
We are invited to observe the cheese-making process, ask questions and take photographs. But the cheese dairy has rules similar to those that apply to visiting a laboratory: protective clothing, hair protection and plastic overshoes are a must. Fortunately cameras don't have to be left outside.
We are invited to observe the cheese-making process, ask questions and take photographs.

Does milk equal milk?

Of course everybody knows cheese is made from milk. So first it's worth taking a look at the milk. Does it actually make any difference where the milk comes from? Or what the animal that gave it has eaten?
Cows, sheep and goats are milked in Switzerland. Most sheep's and goat's milk is used to make cheese. A cow, for example, needs over 100 kilograms of fresh grass a day. In many countries this need is met by adding a high proportion of concentrates and silage to the feed, but an average of 80 percent of what cows in Switzerland consume is fresh green fodder. The rest is hay, silage and concentrates. Silage can have a negative effect on the cheese, as the spores of butyric acid bacteria, which occur naturally in the soil, can proliferate in silage. This can be tolerated in soft cheeses, because they are not aged for long – but the active spores can cause hard cheeses to bloat. High up in the mountains the animals live on nothing but fresh grass in summer. But not even grass is always the same. Down in the valleys the animals have around 20 different flavours available to them in the form of grasses and flowers – but up in the mountains there are far more than a hundred different grasses and herbs, such as mountain thyme, yarrow, calendula, mint and coltsfoot.
From this varied intake of 100 kilograms of grass each cow produces about 20 litres of milk a day, which is processed into between one and two kilograms of cheese. If you remember that the grass – the raw material – and the flavour it contains are compressed to one hundredth of their original volume, it's easy to see that whether it started out with an enormous proportion of herbs rather than silage with soya and maize probably does make a difference!
Farmers in the surrounding area deliver milk to Markus Racine every two days, very early in the morning. These deliveries are a lot of work. The eleven farmers bring Markus between 50 and 500 litres from the Prättigau valley, and the one who's the furthest away has a one-hour round trip. The old 40-litre milk churns have mostly had their day, and farmers generally arrive with refrigerated trailers with large tanks. Refrigeration to about 5 degrees is very important, because at as little as 20 degrees the bacteria in the milk double every 20 minutes. The milk is then transferred to large vessels, but it can remain in them for only one day before it undergoes further processing. In the 1940s and 50s almost all the milk processed came from cows, but in the last few years Markus Racine has specialized in the production of soft cheeses made with goat's and sheep's milk – showing that he has his finger very much on the pulse of the age.

The importance of bacteria in milk

While requirements in milk-processing establishments are becoming ever more stringent, traditional old cheese dairies producing cheese from unpasteurized milk in copper vats over the fire still survive in the Swiss mountains. But the rules governing these have also been tightened up. No lactic-acid bacteria used to be added to the raw milk: their development in the wooden moulds was spontaneous and uncontrolled. Now bacteria are added to the raw milk in order to make the development of the cheese more controllable.
In the production of cheese with heated milk the natural bacteria contained in the milk are first killed off, and subsequently replaced in a controlled process. This is done before actual cheese production begins by heating the milk to 65 degrees for just a few seconds, then cooling it. Called tempering, this process is often utilized in Switzerland. Pasteurisation goes a step further: taking place for 20-30 seconds at almost exactly 75 degrees, it destroys almost all microbes. Ultra-heat-treated and sterile milk go even further, but the quality of the cheese is more and more seriously affected.
It ought not to be forgotten, though, that unpasteurized cheese isn't always good – while cheese made with heated milk isn't always bad. This proves that the skill and experience of the cheese maker are ultimately just as important in producing a really good cheese. Markus Racine didn't reveal his secrets to us, naturally enough. But when the cheese is ready, you can simply taste the wealth of experience that he has gathered in all his years as a cheese maker.

From milk to cheese – how does that work?

Milk consists of carbohydrates, proteins, milk fat and water. Everybody knows that when milk goes sour, it separates into its constituents. To make cheese we want the curd to separate from the whey, but we don't want the milk to go sour first. A great deal of cheese made with sour milk, called acid-curd cheese, used to be produced in the Alpine region. It was uncomplicated: all you had to do to separate the milk was wait for it to go sour. Cheese made with milk that hasn't gone sour is preferred today, and this requires the separation to be controlled. This could be achieved by adding vinegar or lemon juice to the milk, but who likes vinegar cheese? By pure chance an alternative substance was found: rennet. Occurring naturally in calf stomachs, it makes milk coagulate. Rennet is highly effective: very little of it is sufficient. But below 30 degrees and above 39, rennet quickly loses its effect – so the process must take place under close supervision.
There are some purely herbal alternatives to rennet that also make milk coagulate. Bedstraw and thistle blossom can also be used to precipitate the curd, but as these affect the flavour of the cheese they are seldom used.
The cheese maker in the organic cheese dairy climbs the stairs to the vat in which a large rotor has been stirring the sheep's milk for the last hour. Markus Racine added the lactic-acid bacteria at the beginning of this phase for the pre-maturation process. Now it's time to add rennet. He pours the solution into the milk from a small test tube, turns the rotor off and slowly stops the 240 litres of sheep's milk moving with a big shovel. Once the motion has ceased, the clock is set to 30 minutes. Now all there is to do is wait, tidy up a little and patiently answer questions from curious spectators – none of which trouble the cheese maker in the least – while the milk is slowly transformed into curd and whey.

Why does a cheese maker have a harp?

About 30 minutes after the rennet is added, the cheese maker must carefully test the curd with his hand. At this point the experienced cheese maker can also tell whether there are problems with the milk and whether it contains antibiotics (no milk from animals treated with antibiotics is supposed to be delivered within a certain period). But if everything is all right, the curd is broken up into small chunks with the curd harp. This isn't a musical instrument, it's a tool that gets its name from the fact that its many parallel wires are reminiscent of a harp. The cheese maker draws the harp through the curd in lots of different directions. For soft sheep's cheese the chunks should eventually be the size of hazelnuts. The harp is used only for the first rough cut. A plastic shovel is then used to turn the curd carefully until there are only small chunks left. The liquid released in this process is the whey. Now the rotor in the vat is turned on again so that it slowly rotates. The curd is then poured into cheese moulds.
Producing hard cheese takes longer, because the whey and the curd are gradually heated to a higher temperature (50 degrees).
In small cheese dairies the curd is removed with a cloth placed in the vat, in which the curd is separated from the whey. Markus Racine shows us a different process: the curd and whey are pumped onto permeable moulds. The right amount of curd remains in them and the whey runs off, to be collected later by a pig-breeding enterprise. So the "nose-to-tail" principle, in which as little as possible is wasted, also functions in cheese production.

Why does cheese have to rest?

How cheese is stored is crucially important to the end product. It creates flavour and quality, making the difference between good cheese and outstanding cheese. Even if the quality of the milk is superb, and the cheese maker has done everything right – storage is the final, crucial stage in the process. But why? In some cheeses mould must develop, while in others it's important for the flavour to intensify as the water content reduces. The most serious danger in storing cheese isn't that it may become damp and mouldy, it's that it may become too dry.
The first stage of the storage process is to give the completed cheeses a wellness treatment: a bath, in other words. They are laid in a seasoned brine bath – soft sheep's cheese for 90 minutes or so, hard cheeses for as long as 24 hours. The composition of this bath is top secret. Every cheese maker uses his own additives and herbs. Markus Racine won't reveal his recipe to us.
After the bath comes the cooling process. Mould begins to form when the cheeses are at 14 degrees, with humidity at 92-95 percent – and that's just what the cheese maker wants. The cheeses are continually turned for ten days. Great care must be taken at the outset, when the cheeses are especially sensitive. Soft cheeses are packed in thin plastic film, which is then heat-sealed. They should be consumed within no more than six weeks.

What is the difference between soft and hard cheese?

The cheese maker must know at the start whether he wants to produce a soft or a hard cheese, because the respective processes diverge at the very beginning of production. For hard cheese the milk must be heated to a higher temperature after pre-curdling (the period during which rennet separates the milk) than for soft cheese. The addition of bacteria is different for the two types of cheese, and the curd is also treated differently: the curd has to be broken down into much smaller chunks for hard cheese than for soft.
Hard cheese is stored for much longer than soft cheese. The flavour is concentrated over a period of months or years. This is not possible without a great deal of care. The cheeses must be regularly turned, and also washed – usually with brine, which gives the cheese additional seasoning. But if a cheese is going to be stored for a really long time, this would make it too salty – so there are skilled practitioners who wash their cheeses in fresh water but continue to do so for years, thus achieving an incomparable flavour.

Does my cheese contain lactose?

Lactose intolerance is the inability to fully digest the sugar naturally contained in milk. In the cheese-making process the whey contains significant proportions of lactose, but there is actually very little of it in the curd. People with lactose intolerance should be careful with soft cheese, as its higher concentration of moisture means that lactose residues may be present. But hard and semi-hard cheeses contain hardly any lactose, so as a rule people with lactose intolerance can enjoy them with no problems.

What is AOP?

AOP stands for Appellation d’Origine Protégée (Protected Designation of Origin). This distinction applies to a large number of foods all over the world. What it means is that a particular product comes from a region famous for its production, and that it has certain quality features. Emmentaler, Gruyère, Sbrinz and Vacherin are examples of Swiss cheeses awarded the AOP seal of approval.

Christian Franck – Food Freaks

For coop@home, Christian Franck, the head and founder of the food blog "", has embarked upon a journey through the world of cheese, in order to seek out and document exciting new discoveries for you. When Christian isn’t looking over the shoulder of cheese makers, he’s a passionate cook and gourmet. So his blog has revolved around food since 2012. Each week he posts new recipes, dishes and culinary experiments from his kitchen, inviting his readers to rediscover food.

Culinary insights into how gourmets enjoy cheese