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Cheese expertise: a tour of the Alps

Posted by Merritt Steidl, deli category analyst
Friday, September 14, 2012

Situated high in the Italian Alps (over 3,000 ft above sea level), Mila produces first-class mountain cheeses using milk from more than 3,500 family farms. A group of cheese experts flew to Italy this spring to tour cheese farms and learn how many of our cheeses are made. In an age where large-scale commercial farming dominates agriculture, it was inspiring to visit one of these small family farms.

The Oberrauch farm was bustling with life and activity during our May visit. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Mrs. and Mr. Oberrauch and their son Manuel. We could see a dozen or so cattle grazing in the sunny pastures below, while small groups of rabbits, pigs, and chickens were housed in the open-air barn above. In an adjacent barn we met two baby calves the Oberrauchs had welcomed just four days earlier. The farm was teeming with spring life!

The Oberrauchs are part of a dairy group called the Mila Cooperative, located in Italy’s northernmost region, Alto Adige. This region is so far north that it’s historically part of Austria and the local people speak both German and Italian. Dairy farming and cheese making are traditions of the area that date back to the Middle Ages. The steep terrain and harsh mountain conditions make it hard to care for larger herds because much of the work has to be done by hand. Each farm averages around 12 cows, however the Oberrauch’s heard was a little larger with around 20 cows.

The cattle eat natural diets year-round with fresh grasses during warmer months, and hay in the winter. Nutrient-rich grasses, flowers and aromatic herbs found in the mountains give Alpine milk, and ultimately the cheese, its unique flavor. Although the cattle were still grazing in their pastures when we visited, we learned that they would soon venture up into the mountains to find cooler temperatures. They usually stay in those higher altitude lands for the entire summer. The Oberrauchs milk the cattle right on the mountain during those months.

This seasonal movement of humans along with their heard is called transhumance. It originated during nomadic times, but has lost popularity today due to inconvenience. However, transhumance is still common in the Alps because of its environmental and economic advantages. The lower pastures get a break from grazing, allowing farmers to collect hay for the winter. Other animals also have a chance to feed in the lower lands when the cows are gone.

Our visit ended with a cheese sampling on the Oberrauch’s balcony overlooking their farm. With the Alps in the distance, we enjoyed the familiar cheeses with new appreciation. It’s the collaborative efforts of over 3,500 small farms that preserve the tradition of Alpine cheese making. Their commitment to caring for their animals, environment and producing the best milk possible is truly inspiring. As our visit drew to a close, we thanked the Oberranchs for giving us a glimpse into their lives and a story to share.

Alto Adige Cheese Sampling Notes

  • Stelvio – Recipe has been passed down since 13th century. Aged 60 days. Creamy and full-bodied. Great for melting.
  • Alta Badia – Matured for 180 days. Full and robust flavor.
  • Lagrein – Rubbed with herbs and submerged into the local award-winning wine, Lagrein. Fruity and light herbal flavor
  • King of the Dolomites – Resembles a Swiss style cheese. Soft with a hint of walnut.

Tags: italyitalian cheese

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