Heavy wooden ladles, coarse linen cloth, the shimmering copper cauldron and an open fire at the bottom of a fireplace blackened by soot a long time ago: For a short while, it seems as if time had stood still in the mountain hut. Then somebody's smartphone rings and we have swiftly returned to the present. A group of children huddles close to a barrier, curiously craning their necks. Along with a local pair of lovers, as well as tourists from Australia, Austria and Japan, their parents are also following the events in the semi-dark with great interest. For 20 minutes, cheesemaker Paul has been stirring the milk in the “Chessi” with a huge whisk, until gradually the curds separate from the whey. Finally, the white bits resembling cottage cheese sink to the bottom of the cauldron. Without batting an eyelid, the 62-year-old cheesemaker dips his hand in the warm whey shortly afterwards, lifting out a handful of corn, as the curd is also called. “Only when it squeaks between your teeth, will the consistency be right,” he says, and passes a plate around the group for everyone to try. The little ones chew, giggling with pleasure, while the adults nod in acknowledgement.
For more than 20 years, the open dairy of Pontresina at the foot of the vast Morteratsch glacier has been offering insights into the traditional production of alpine cheese. When Hansjürg Wüthrich, a Swiss federally certified master cheesemaker, was setting up the business with his wife Evelyne, he had a version of “Ballenberg”, the Swiss Open-Air Museum situated between Brienz and Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland in mind for the Engadin. Which isn’t really surprising, considering that Wüthrich was born in the Canton of Bern. “Tradition is important to us, which is why we still do everything by hand up here on the alp,” says the 58-year-old “Engadiner-by-choice”, who actually still likes to lend a hand in making the cheese as well as running the business. Every season, 55,000 litres of the finest unpasteurised milk from the Alp Bernina in the Heutal, Alp Bondo, Alp Roseg, Alp Fex and the village of Pontresina are turned into the Engadin specialities “Heutaler-Alpkäse“, “Gletscher-Mutschli” and “Molkeziger”. And these simply fly off the shelves, for guests can not only look on, but also try the cheeses. The Alp-Brunch with regional specialities is especially popular with locals and tourists from all over the world, who settle down together on long benches under the open sky to tuck in.
While the Wüthrichs initially sold only a few coffees to hikers, more than a hundred visitors can descend on them today, especially in good weather. It's entirely possible that the face of one or the other teenager helping out behind the counter might look familiar. 15-year-old Quirin Agrippi, better known as “Goatherd Peter” from the 2015 version of the Swiss film classic “Heidi”, spends his summer breaks earning his pocket money on the alp. In the meantime, master cheesemaker Ullmann has prepared the moulds, casting a critical look at the audience. “Now someone has to come and assist me.” A young woman ventures forward, and together they use a coarse piece of linen to fish the white cheese mass out of the cauldron and pour it into round moulds. The cheeses are then weighted down and turned regularly until the evening, when they are moved to the cellar and left to mature for several months. “And what happens to the leftover liquid?” asks someone eventually. “Sometimes I use the whey to make ham and salami,” jokes Paul Ullmann. One guest duly responds with an incredulous “really, how interesting!” In effect, the whey is not simply discarded. Once production has finished for the day, everyone is welcome to climb into a wooden tub, and enjoy a cheese immersion, well rather a very healthy whey bath, with a glass of Prosecco.