Alpine cheese at the Starkenfeld hut
The Rodenecker-Lüsner alp is one of the most beautiful mountain pastures in South Tyrol. On the Astjoch, the highest point at 2,194 metres, you can enjoy a magnificent 360-degree panorama. The Starkenfeld hut is just a short hike and almost 160 metres in altitude below. In June, we first have a chat with the hut's landlord, Johannes, before dairyman Wolfgang gives us an insight into the art of cheese-making in the hut's Alpine dairy.
Unlike us, the cows at the Starkenfeld hut on the Rodenecker-Lüsner alp are not really interested in the sweeping views of the surrounding mountains that the sunny high plateau offers. They are either grazing and moving forward at a leisurely pace, or lying on the meadow and ruminating. We watch the peaceful herd for a while, and the gentle tinkling of the cowbells together with the slow movements of the large animals has something calming, almost meditative about it. The nature and the tranquillity are beautiful. A week up here would certainly be great, but we can't imagine spending the majority of the year at an altitude of about 2,000 metres like hut owner Johannes von Klebelsberg.
The dream of life on the mountain pasture
Johannes has been running the Starkenfeld hut at 1,936 metres above sea level since April 2022. Even though he had been dreaming of life on the mountain pasture for some time, he wasn't sure whether the time on the mountain pasture might be a little too long for him. After all, the summer season lasts from beginning of May to mid-November, and in winter the hut is open from Christmas to Carnival. But Johannes now knows that his decision in favour of this hut was the right one.
At the end of his first summer season at the Starkenfeld hut, he was looking forward to the valley, but after a short time he was longing for life on the mountain pastures again and could hardly wait for winter to start. The young hut manager simply enjoys catering for hikers, mountain bikers, ski tourers, snowshoe hikers and cross-country skiers. The hut, which was newly opened 6 years ago, is also an exceptionally beautiful place: in addition to a cosy restaurant and a large terrace, there are rooms and suites for overnight guests and a seminar room with large panoramic windows.
Cheese sommelier and dairyman
Wolfgang Köhl has always been passionate about dairy products and cheese in particular. And even though he has now made cheese his profession, he still loves it in all its variations – from grey cheese (Graukäse) with onion, vinegar and oil to snacks, which in South Tyrol is called "Marende" with Alpine cheese and Speck, a typical bacon, to cheese dumplings with mountain cheese. When he completed his training as a dairyman in 2016, he was already a certified cheese sommelier, and he still attends in-depth courses every year to keep up to date and continue to develop his skills.
As a dairyman at the Starkenfeld hut, Wolfgang is responsible for 17 cows from mid-June to the beginning of September. The cows of the robust grey cattle breed are milked twice a day, at 5.30 am and 5 pm. They produce around 15–18 litres of milk per day. Due to the constant movement on the pasture, the cows produce slightly less milk than in the barn, but the aromatic herbs give milk, yoghurt and cheese a particularly fine flavour. We can confirm this: The various samples taste excellent.
How is milk turned into cheese?
Wolfgang shows us the path from fresh raw milk to the finished alpine cheese. The first step is the so-called coagulation of the milk: acidifying cultures and rennet are added to the milk, causing the milk protein to coagulate. Wolfgang cuts the curdled mass into pieces with a cheese harp – this is how the curd is made. Wolfgang stirs and heats this mass to kill off unwanted germs. After more whey has escaped during this process and the curd has reached the right consistency, Wolfgang fills it into moulds.
The next day, the young cheese wheel is given a bath in brine. The cheese then matures for around 5 weeks in the maturing store at 12-15 degrees Celsius. During the ripening period, the cheese is turned daily and brushed with salt water and ripening cultures. In addition to alpine cheese, Wolfgang also produces soft cheese and – from the end of July – mountain cheese. This year, the Starkenfeld hut would also like to take part in the South Tyrolean Alpine Cheese Tasting and the Alpine Cheese Olympics in Galtür for the first time.