Stepping off the train and finding the bus station, I boarded the vehicle that would take me straight into the Swiss Alps where I was about to learn how to make Alp Kase. Yes, Cheese.
After hopping off the bus with nothing more than my backpack and traveling tent, I entered into a world that I never knew before: Swiss Cheese Making. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know the family that was working this dairy farm high up in the mountains, I didn’t know how to speak Swiss Deutsch and I certainly didn’t know the first thing about cheese making (except that I absolutely LOVE eating it, which is surely the end step of cheese making).
A few months earlier, I decided to “move to Switzerland” for a month to work on an organic farm learning how to make cheese. You see, not only have I been an avid traveler, but somehow, an avid cheese eater.
I had first heard of WWOOFing while backpacking and hiking in the Swiss Alps a few years earlier. Fellow hostel-mates told amazing stories of coffee bean picking in Ecuador or helping raise windmill farms in Chile. This was all possible through the organization, “World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” or WWOOF.
The idea is that you align your passions, dreams and ideals to a similar organic farm, and in exchange for daily work the farm provides you with food and lodging as well as insights into organic farming and living. Some farms accept workers for short spurts of time, where others ask for more of a commitment, especially if in a job that requires some training.
You can find WWOOF farms literally all over the world and in almost any field of interest. However, the main objective is to learn about organic farming and living. So, if living an organic life isn’t that important to you, you shouldn’t see this as just a cheap way to see another part of the world. You should truly be invested and interested in that way of life and how you can incorporate it more into your own after your experience on the farm. While this small farm that I was traveling to solo was not the actual farm I would be working on for the full month, it was where I would spend one of the most memorable weekends of my life!
After hiking up to the AlpKaserie (Cheesemaking home), I was already exhausted. There were no buses or public transportation that went up that far, so my only option was to use my legs to get from the bus stop in the valley to the mountain home and farm.
As I made my way into the barn in the early evening, two young men came out to greet me. We did our best to communicate in broken English and my best attempt at German when finally they just simply said,
“You shovel shit?”
Well, I guess that translates into every language…
And that is how I started my weekend learning to make cheese; by shoveling cow manure. I’m not quite sure how I pictured learning to make cheese without tending to the cows, but somehow, this little detail had escaped me.
Next, it was time to milk the cows. In my mind, I originally envisioned squatting down on a tiny stool and hand milking each cow one by one. Oh, how naive this city girl was! Of course, there was mechanical machinery ready to make the process quick and simple!
While it was nowhere near bedtime by most people’s standards, as hard-working farmers we had an early morning upon us. It was time for dinner, a few drinks and then bedtime.
Except I had no comfy bed for the weekend, considering this teeny tiny farmhouse barely held the family members that lived there. So, I set up my one-person tent out in the cow pasture, used my backpack for a pillow and prepared for a night under the Alpine stars.
Originally, I had no problem with this sleeping accommodation. That is, until the pre-dawn, early morning when the cows instinctively knew that food and milking would come soon enough. I awoke around 4 am surrounded by a herd of cows mooing loudly next to my tent, as others came tramping down the mountainside, neck bells clanging loudly with them.
After an hour of failed attempts of going back to sleep while being serenaded by cows, it was time to get moooving. Our morning consisted of the same milking routine as the evening before and then into the kitchen to prepare for the actual cheese making. First, it was warming the milk, then adding cheese culture, Next, rennet was added to start to solidify the cheese curds and finally, we could mold the cheese into large circles. After pressing the large rounds of cheese and giving them a salt bath, we then made our way into the cellar for washing the already formed cheeses to ensure no cracking as they aged for months. After sanitizing all of our molds and supplies, my morning cheese making was complete!
The afternoon was spent hiking the beautiful Alps, something more difficult than I imagined after a night of little sleep and a map not fit for alpine navigation but worth all the effort for the stunning scenery and peaceful moments in nature.
As I returned in the evening for the same round of chores, realizing that this was a cheese farmers routine day in and day out, and wondering if I’d be trapped in a “Ground Hogs Day” type life for the next 30 days, I was thankful that my own daily life had a little more variety to it.
After the month of WWOOFing in Switzerland, I did indeed have a different outlook on farming, self-sustainability and organic ways of living. I also was able to see firsthand how the locals lived and experience things that I never would have been able to, had I never ventured out of my hometown. Alternatively, if I had decided to just stay at hotels and guest houses throughout Switzerland like many people to while traveling, I would have missed out on an amazing adventure.
And that is what travel is really about to me. It is about new experiences; it’s about meeting people in their natural element and appreciating their way of life, as different as it is from yours. Travel is about pushing yourself in ways you didn’t know you could be pushed; but mostly, I love that travel connects you to the world- wherever that may be.
To read more about the daily, adventures, farm chores and life while WWOOFing in Switzerland, read LeAnna’s full story of Swiss WWOOFing