Cheese festival gives public taste for mountains
It was a rather odd choice for a name, but the “Mountain Cheese Olympics”, held last weekend in Appenzell, highlighted the plight facing Europe’s mountain regions.
The event was created three years ago by representatives from Switzerland, France and Italy concerned about the threat globalisation poses to mountain economies.
Globalisation has yet to kill off antiquated customs in the small town of Appenzell, the capital of the half canton of Appenzell Inner Rhodes, which hosted the event.
Set amid a backdrop of undulating hills sprinkled with small family farms, visitors came for a taste of mountain cheeses but got a lot of local flavour instead.
They were greeted by women attired in traditional dresses and men – young and old – wearing spoon-shaped earrings and smoking upside-down pipes.
More than 600 mountain cheeses were showcased in dozens of small, wooden stands in Appenzell’s main square – also known as one of the last remaining places in the western world where voters gather to exercise their rights by a show of hands.
Appenzell has been successful in attracting tourists by aggressively marketing its idyllic countryside and its many curious customs which, in turn, has helped to keep cottage industries like cheese making alive.
The town was, therefore, an ideal choice for the international cheese festival. Around 15 per cent of Appenzell’s population is still employed in agriculture – one of the highest rates in a country where the average is about four per cent.
The cheeses entered in the competition were aimed at showing what mountain regions were capable of, and why every effort should be made to support their economies.
A variety of soft cheeses from France and Switzerland’s Jura hills went down well with the jury, as did Roquefort blue cheese.
Also capturing top marks was a flavoured soft cheese from Hokkaido, Japan, a goat’s cheese from the Mexican highlands and a pungent Portuguese cheese made from ewe’s milk.
As Switzerland was the host country, its mountain cheeses accounted for two-thirds of the entries, and they accordingly took their share of prizes – from ripened Gruyère to Emmental.
The importance of mountain products was also one of the themes of a seminar running parallel to the event.
“Globalisation produces homogenised goods,” said Frank Gaskell, president of Euromontana – an association for cooperation between mountain regions.
“Where is the reservoir of authentic diversification or differentiated goods in Europe?” he added. “It’s in the mountains.”
Lorenz Koller, the Appenzell Inner Rhodes agriculture and forestry minister, says he expects a further decline in farming in Appenzell due to the planned lifting of milk quotas and the abolishing of export subsidies.
But Koller does not believe that the figure will drop below eight per cent.
This is partly due to the area’s thriving cottage industries (see In Brief), which are either run by farmers or according to Appenzell’s farming traditions.
Manfred Bötsch, head of the Swiss Federal Agriculture Office, praised Appenzell’s farmers and craftsmen for their entrepreneurial spirit.
Bötsch said that funding would in future only be available for farms like those in Appenzell which could show innovative ideas backed by sound business plans.
“The political approach has shifted away from a top down [approach],” he said.
“You get funding, but only if you come up with your own initiatives, and that’s a shift in attitude to help those with new ideas.”
There has also been a steady flow of people from Europe’s mountain regions to urban areas and fears were expressed at the seminar that many villages could soon become ghost towns as farm subsidies disappear.
Gaskell said that farmers’ contributions went far beyond producing animals and cereals and that forestry was more than just growing trees.
“They produce landscape and they produce protection from avalanches and they produce pure water sources,” said Gaskell.
“Everybody recognises this, but when we go on to say, ‘farmers should be rewarded, land managers should be rewarded,’ they say ‘we can’t measure it’,” he added.
“But I say to them, you will be able to measure it when you let those farmers… vanish and then you’ll be able to measure exactly what they produce because you’ll see it vanish and then it will be irretrievable.”
There was, however, a consensus at both the seminar and the cheese competition that the public is willing to pay a premium price for quality goods from mountain regions.
Manuel Maia of the Portuguese cheese wholesaler, “Tradifoods”, said the award-winning “Serra da Estrela” cheese was in high demand even though it carries a price tag of between €40 and €60 (SFr61 and SFr92) a kilo.
One of the most expensive in Europe, the ewe’s milk cheese is coagulated using an extract of the thistle flower instead of animal curd.
“It’s important to have this cheese on our table on Christmas Eve,” Maia explained.
“The Portuguese all over the world may not know many cheeses but they know this one.”
Jury member Jeff Wideman from the United States says that even American consumers are demanding better cheeses.
“They are tired [of generic goods]. The middle class or people who can afford it are looking for quality products - for a unique flavour,” he said.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Appenzell
657 cheeses from mountain regions around the world were judged at the event.
About two-thirds of all entries were from Switzerland, which won 37 of the 60 gold, silver and bronze medals.
A seminar running parallel to the competition highlighted the challenges facing mountain regions.
Appenzell agricultural products include hard cheese, herbal schnapps and tin alloy decorations found on traditional costumes and belts.
Farm families run many of the small restaurants that dot the countryside, making Appenzell a popular hiking region.
Unique rural customs and festivals also benefit tourism in Appenzell.
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