The kings of cheese

Sarah Meraner

The kings of cheese

For one of them, it is steady progression that is important; for the second the focus is on pure authenticity, and, for the third, the personal contact with his customers comes first – three personalities from the Val d’Ega who couldn’t be more different! Yet Stefan Köhl, Hansi Kafmann and Markus Lantschner all share the same passion – namely for good cheese! :-)

The perfectionist

Stefan Köhl leaves nothing to chance. His Learner cheese dairy farm is the result of many hours of hard work, years of training, considerable investment and, above all, an iron will! Stefan has been busy running his farm since 2013 and has realised his dream of owning his own cheese dairy. Pictures on the walls of the little farm shop document his daily work. Stefan, the eldest of four siblings, tells me that the Learnerhof has been in the family since his great-great-grandmother bought it in 1906. “My father looks after the cattle, while my mother helps out in the barn, works in the farm shop and does everything that needs doing in the house. I am mainly responsible for the cheese dairy, as well as production and sales in the grocery stores, and so on. My wife Samantha helps in the office and the deliveries and runs our household.” Thus, between them, Stefan and family keep the farm going.

Stefan, 33, continues: “Cheese production begins outdoors in the field”. The grey cattle that supply him with the milk for his cheese are fed exclusively on fresh grass or hay. In fact, 18% of the 46 hectares of land farmed by this young man from Nova Ponente are mown three times a year, weather permitting. His grey breed offers, he believes, one very clear advantage: “Although they only produce half the milk compared to other cows, the milk is not as fatty, which is of course positive for cheese production as we can use it directly. The milk would otherwise have to be skimmed in advance – and every mechanical step affects the quality of the milk!” The raw milk produced each day must be processed within the next two days, or there is a risk that the product will no longer be suitable. Cheese is thus made every day. Stefan demonstrates and explains the individual steps involved in his large production plant: the milk is first heated, then rennet and lactic acid bacteria are added so that the milk will clot. This thickening creates a gelatinous mass, which is next cut using a so-called cheese harp. This results in curdling – a step that requires a lot of muscle power! :-) The curds produced in this way determine the type of cheese; the smaller the curds, the harder the final product. The cheese curds are then heated while being constantly stirred until the curd becomes firmer. Once it reaches the desired consistency it is poured into a mould for pressing. The whey flows out through holes and the cheese is given a very special bath: a salt bath, where the cheese absorbs the salt that helps preserve it. This is also where the rind forms and the taste becomes more intense. “If we were to lie down in here, it would feel as if we were in the Dead Sea”, laughs Stefan, then shows us the place where his treasures mature and are daily tended. This young cheesemaker is especially convinced of the importance of naturalness, and that everything comes from his own farm. This is why the untreated wooden boards on which the cheese ripens come from his own woodland – all made by his brother Michael, a carpenter by trade. Stefan plans everything down to the last detail, from the first step of cheese-making through to the last step of sales in the shops. He works carefully and extremely precisely, with even the red tape fully under control. “Better to write down too much than too little,” is his motto. As a successful cheese producer, always aiming to keep one step ahead, he is visibly and particularly proud of his new underground cellars – which are by the way very reminiscent of modern wine cellars – where his products mature.

Stefan Köhl indeed leaves nothing to chance. His work requires perfection, yet Stefan is always ready to try out something new. Should there be a little time left over in his hectic everyday schedule, he ventures into making new cheeses. But even then his motto is always: be patient! “When you try making a new cheese, you unfortunately have to wait a few months for the result, it’s not like making yoghurt.” And he also needs to spend a few months patiently awaiting the results of a very special effort: two huge Parmesan cheeses lie in one of his new cellar rooms. “These two beauties will rest here for another year,” he tells me. Time for a break? No chance of that for Stefan or the Learner cheese dairy! :-)

The genuine article

The Hagneralm has been going for 30 years and, for the last 12 years, Hansi Kafmann – Lord of the Alpine Pasture, (in)famous throughout the Val d’Ega – has been making his very own cheese: “Cheese was easy to produce: after all, we have everything we need right here.” And, because it was so “easy”, Hansi willingly adapted to the art of cheese-making. He took various courses, trained as a cheese sommelier... all of this is necessary, but you can only learn the craft properly with experience gained over many years, reveals Hansi, who is as genuine as the wild nature of the Val d’Ega. Born and raised in Nova Levante, he somehow simply seems to belong to the very fabric of the Hagneralm, which he owns and runs. The dark wooden shingles of the roof, the red geraniums outside the windows and, out in front, “Hagner Hansi” himself – rough, original, a straight-talking fellow who cares nothing for success. “Yes, I’ve taken part in one or two competitions and even won a few, but these awards are usually overrated... they’re just snapshots and don’t really tell you much about the overall quality and taste. It’s much better when people almost snatch the cheese out of your hand!”

“It is always a challenge to make a product that can reach the same high standard. It is also always a challenge to make a new type of cheese and see if it is a success. We are always trying something new, so we work with strains of microorganisms and cultures. There are always very high risks involved, of course. Like other cheese dairies, though, we are subject to strict quality controls.” We here means Hansi himself and his assistant Milan, who helps him during production. Otherwise, the Hagner Alm is solely a family business. Hansi is down-to-earth and at the same time very proud of his Alpine cheese dairy – a term that, by the way, is protected under EU law. “The morning milk is mixed with the evening milk and then the whole cheese-making process begins, two to three hours every day. We also have to tend to the cheese daily and we also enhance our cheeses, giving them a special touch with herbs and wine, for example. In addition to the classic herb and pepper cheeses, we also make different types of mature cream cheese – we are always trying out new things depending on the amount of milk.” Guests are served between six and ten products on each cheese platter. “A lot of people ask me why I don’t produce larger quantities, but I don’t care. I have a few cows, my little cheese dairy and all the cheese we make is produced by ourselves. Our products are limited in quantity, but it would otherwise be impossible to keep track of everything and it would therefore no longer be authentic.” This means that pre-orders cannot be placed with Hansi. There are only five establishments in the Val d’Ega that have Hansi’s valuable cheese delivered: the remaining 95% of his products are sold directly from the premises.

Hansi is as reserved in the interview as the atmosphere up here is intimate. He nevertheless reveals a few secrets about his cheese: “We only make cheese in summer, from May to October, when we produce around 2,000 kilograms of cheese. And because during the day it is too hot for the ten cows to stay outdoors during these months, I only send them out to pasture at night. This is less stressful for the animals and the milk quality is quite different – and the cheese tastes even better.” He doesn’t say so directly, but he is delighted that his cheese is so well received by his customers. His special favourite is his camembert, a cheese that is rarely produced in South Tyrol but for which the Hagner Alm is well-known. His cheese is intended to be special, different, not mainstream. Just... simple and genuine, like himself.

The regular guy

He lives his life not just on the farm or making cheese, but in particular in bringing his cheese directly to cheese lovers: four times a week, from 7 a.m. to noon, Markus Lantschner takes up position behind his stand at a farmers’ market – and today is no different. “The contact with end users is both the most important and also the finest thing for me, because only they can tell me how they liked the cheese and where improvements might be needed. I am very grateful for personal feedback and only that can help you progress,” says 32-year-old Markus in his honest way. Nevertheless, it is the production of the cheese itself on his farm, the Ebenhof in Steinegg, that is of course always the most vital and central task, no matter what day of the week it is. “The biggest challenge in my job is probably the lack of free time – production doesn’t stop, even at weekends. The cows have to be milked and the milk has to be processed immediately. There’s no time for more than a week’s holiday a year. And when I’m not here, my mother looks after the cheese. And, even if she does everything step by step just as I do, the cheese will taste a little bit different – but of course I’m very critical,” Markus smiles.
Markus gets plenty of support from his family: his wife has also been there from the beginning and helps out where she can. “Normally she’s at the market with me, but today it’s Marie who is here!” he laughs pleasantly. Marie is the eldest of their three children.

Markus’s day begins early. At half past five each morning he goes to the barn for milking; the production of cheese then starts and continues until late morning. Afternoons are spent working outside. Markus is solely responsible for the cheese, while his father often helps him in the barn. “The Ebenhof was not always a cheese dairy. Before I finished my training in Salern and set up the cheese dairy with my parents, my father sold our milk to the Mila dairy – and I never thought of making cheese before. But when I learned how to, I immediately liked it and it worked out right away. What I do today is what I’ve always wanted to do: to live from what the farm provides. And so now we use our milk to make cheese, curd cheese and yoghurt.” And, because he has been able to live his dream for twelve years now, he can also take on the more complex aspects: “Hygiene, for example, is absolutely critical in my work – so I pay very careful attention to it.”

It takes between two weeks and six months of maturing at the Ebenhof before Markus can bring his eight cheese varieties – which by the way offer something for every taste – to market.
The market is where he sells most of his products, as well as selling from the farm shop and to hotels in Collepietra and the surrounding area. “I am of course delighted that we have so many regular customers coming to us at the market every week. This encourages us and motivates us to keep going,” beams the young cheesemaker, who is repeatedly hailed by acquaintances who invite him to go for a coffee or a beer.
Markus Lantschner is truly a regular guy, a family man whose heart is never far from home. And someone who is passionate and painstaking when it comes to what he loves: making cheese.

Just like Hansi Kafmann and Stefan Köhl. That’s why these three are our Val d’Ega cheese kings! :-)

Sarah Meraner

is responsible for Digital Storytelling at clicktext, the South Tyrolean agency for corporate content and blogger of “Geschichten im Kopf [Stories on my mind]”. Making use of every one of her senses to experience the world, she can tell us all about it in words, stories and images.

The Italian version of this text is the work of our translation wizard Serena Schiavolin, responsible for Italian content at clicktext, who brings a typical Italian touch to our stories!