The gold of the Gerschnialp

30 August 2019

The sun is still slumbering behind the peaks when 62-year-old Sälmi Töngi opens the door to his dairy and fires up the oven. It is five o’clock in the morning, and in two hours the farmers from the surrounding Alpine pastures will be delivering around 1,700 litres of milk, produced by a total of 200 cows. Sälmi will warm the milk in two large copper vats and gradually turn it into cheese – in the traditional way that he has been making this Alpine delicacy for the past 43 summers.  


Alpine ambrosia 
The Sbrinz cheese from the Gerschnialp dairy is famed throughout Switzerland, and even beyond the national borders. This Sbrinz is not as firm as the variety produced down in the valley, and that’s because of the milk it’s made from: the cows up here eat hay, grass and herbs all summer long. This helps create a cheese with a unique, herby flavour that melts deliciously in the mouth and turns a simple dinner into an exquisite feast. The Sbrinz can be served in chunks accompanying a glass of good white wine, or it can be melted into the famous Swiss speciality Älplermagronen. Some of the very best restaurants in Switzerland feature Sälmi’s Sbrinz cheese on their menus, and airline SWISS recently asked Sälmi if he could deliver 3,000 kg of his Sbrinz for its first-class passengers. 

Of course Sälmi could do that! Stored in his cellar are hundreds of cheese wheels – including Alpkäse, Raclette, Mutschli, Ricotta and goat’s cheese alongside the Sbrinz. Sälmi makes 30 tonnes of cheese each year, but the Sbrinz is the cream of his crop. It has its own low-moisture ripening room. The cheese wheels there are as big as car tyres, and some of them are more than five years old. “Sbrinz is a very sensitive cheese,” says Sälmi. “You need to dedicate a great deal of care and attention to it. But if you get it right, the effort is really worth it.” 


A man of the mountains
At his dairy on the Gerschnialp, Sälmi Töngi gazes down into his copper vats, a satisfied smile under the huge moustache on his round face. He has added cultures to the warmed milk, then he waited, then he added rennet. Now the viscous, sharp-smelling mass is gradually turning into cheese. The air in the room is steamy – the perfect conditions for creating this cheese. Sälmi wipes his forehead. This is strenuous work, and he spends 15 hours on his feet every day. “But it’s the best job I can imagine,” he says. “Up here I feel free.” He loves the mountains and doesn’t even leave them in the wintertime: when the cows have gone back down to the valley and he locks the door of his dairy, he begins work as a mountain rescuer on the ski slopes of the Titlis

Info about the cheesmaker and his cheese
Sälmi Töngi sells his cheese on site at the Gerschnialp pasture, but also at the Saturday market in Engelberg and the farmers’ market in Lucerne. The cheese specialities of "Käser Sälmi" are sold at the following points of sale in Engelberg: Hurschler Dairy (since 35 years), Show cheese factory at the Monastery Engelberg, Wetti Lädeli and "HANNY'S LÄDÄLI" at the Sporthotel Eienwäldli.

Sälmi offers an unusual service for anyone who is as mad about cheese as he is. Upon request, visitors up on the Gerschnialp can take a whey bath – it’s great for softening the skin!


Alpine cheese trail

Text: Stéphanie Suoron
Stéphanie Souron first skied down the Gerschnialp while on a winter holiday at the age of six. In adult life, her work as a freelance journalist took her to Hamburg, but she senses that she won’t be able to commit long term to a town that has no mountains.
Images: Engelberg-Titlis Tourismus