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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe

Say Cheese! The International Mountain Cheese Olympics in Galtür

Updated on 12.09.2022 in Food & Drink, Photos: Marek Vogel

Every summer, the best types of cheese from the different Alpine countries compete against each other in Galtür. We are here to visit a Tirolean local hero during his training in the mountains – and then we’ll accompany him to the 27th International Mountain Cheese Olympics. May the best cheese win!

It’s not just the know-how of the cheese maker that counts – cheese making also requires a lot of patience and an eye for detail.It’s not just the know-how of the cheese maker that counts – cheese making also requires a lot of patience and an eye for detail.

The air is clear and cool. There’s not a single cloud to be seen in the pale blue sky. It’s going to be a splendid late summer day here in Galtür, right at the end of the Tirolean Paznaun Valley. But Benni Schmidhofer isn’t interested in the beautiful weather. He would have preferred to stay in the multipurpose hall with its cold fluorescent light – right there where his cheese is. He has just presented its microbiological analysis report, received the registration confirmation and stroked the rind of his beloved cheese one last time. After that, he was asked to wait outside. However, he decides to stay just a few more minutes. Standing quietly in the back, he watches the other cheesemakers registering their own cheeses. Then he manages to tear his eyes away and heads toward the exit. His cheese is on its own now.

For the expert judges, the International Mountain Cheese Olympics is more like a quality rating than a competition.For the expert judges, the International Mountain Cheese Olympics is more like a quality rating than a competition.

Six hours later, Benni is allowed to re-enter the hall. The judging panel has already decided who will be receiving a medal at the 27th International Mountain Cheese Olympics. But Benni has to wait until the awards ceremony in the evening to find out whether he is one of the lucky winners. There are some familiar faces the 27-year-old recognises from his cheesemaker training. Maybe a little wink will help him find out whether he should get his hopes up… In that moment, someone from the judging panel approaches him. He asks whether the summer up on his alpine pasture was bad too. “We had a lot of bitter, sharp cheeses this year,” the expert claims. “Yes, the summer was often wet and cold,” Benni answers – and suddenly all the enormous effort of the last four months is written in his face. Together with his team, he worked non-stop every day, sometimes for twelve hours or longer. But even for the best cheese bad weather is hard. If it rains a lot, the pH level of the soil sinks. That’s when weeds and sorrel sprout, which leads to the milk becoming sourer. If it’s too cold, the micro organisms also become sluggish – which leads to the cheese not ripening as well and the flavours not developing. Problems which Benni has become afraid of. But he still has an ace up his sleeve.

Secret herbal hotspot

A couple of months ago at the Holzalm alpine pasture in Wildschönau: Benni Schmidhofer doesn’t attempt to hide where the “secret” ingredient that’ll hopefully help him win a medal in Galtür comes from. Perhaps because he knows that it can’t be stolen from him. He discovered it at the very end of the alpine pasture, just below the Bergsattel mountain at about 1,500 metres. Just a few steps away, there’s a popular hiking destination – the Halsgatterl, where there’s a pretty chapel and two wooden figures reminding us of the legend of the origin of Wildschönau. According to the legend, a man from Wildschönau and a female farmer from the Brixental Valley fell into each other’s arms after a dragon had killed everyone else in the high mountain valley. Today’s population of Wildschönau originates entirely from this couple – or so the story goes. But Benni Schmidhofer, who was born in the Zillertal Valley, isn’t here to play the tour guide today. “This is the spot where we have the ideal ratio of grasses and herbs,” he explains while plucking a handful of green grass and herbs to smell them. He has named this steep dip facing south “Galtür-Senke”, which means “Galtür basin”. This is where the 163 dairy cows of the Holzalm alpine pasture will spend two days filling their four stomachs with herbs, grass and alpine flowers. The milk the cows produce during these days will be rich in omega-3 fatty acids. And Benni Schmidhofer will be making his Galtür cheese out of it.

The quality of the milk is one of the crucial factors. So you have to make sure the cows have access to high-quality pasture.The quality of the milk is one of the crucial factors. So you have to make sure the cows have access to high-quality pasture.

The International Mountain Cheese Olympics takes place every year during the last weekend of September. For many artisan cheesemakers, this is also the conclusion and highlight of their alpine season. During these two days everything revolves around cheese in the tiny village of Galtür. Over 3,000 visitors are drawn to this event every year, with more than 100 artisan cheesemakers from Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany and Italy getting their treasures out of the ripening cellar and bringing them to the multipurpose hall on the outskirts of the village to compete against each other. The entry conditions are strict: Only unpasteurised cheese from one’s own alpine agriculture is allowed. A select international panel consisting of 30 experts judges the cheese holes and colour, consistency and flavour – and only those who can impress the experts across the board will receive one of the highly coveted Galtür Dairyman Harps in Gold.

Each discipline has its peculiarities

The International Mountain Cheese Olympics is meant to be more like a quality rating than a race, according to Dr Klaus Dillinger, Research Director at the Higher Federal Learning and Research Institute (Höhere Bundeslehr- und Forschungsanstalt, HBLFA) in Rotholz (Tirol), which specialises in dairy farming. Klaus Dillinger has been part of the event since it first began. In each discipline, there are more than just three spots on the podium. Instead, each cheese that fulfils the quality criteria receives a gold, silver or bronze award. Therefore, there are several medallists in each category. However, when taking a look at the results from recent years, the chances of winning gold are still only one in ten.

Uncompromising rules and strict expert judges turn the International Mountain Cheese Olympics into a tough contest.Uncompromising rules and strict expert judges turn the International Mountain Cheese Olympics into a tough contest.

In order to be able to compare the cheeses as objectively as possible, they are divided into 17 different groups in Galtür: from soft cheese to young or old mountain cheese to cheese with herbs or other ingredients. Just like in the Olympic Games, each discipline has its own peculiarities and challenges. While the category “cheese with ingredients” compares with the decathlon discipline because you have to try out new and potentially winning combinations constantly and over a longer period of time, the category “old mountain cheese” resembles gymnastics, where absolute concentration is required. “The longer a cheese ripens, the more obvious the mistakes are,” Klaus Dillinger explains. That’s why mountain cheese is considered to be the supreme discipline. Benni Schmidhofer and his Holzalm alpine pasture team even managed to get a silver medal in the semi-hard cheese category last year. He’s proud of his award. Not least because out of all disciplines, he was able to prove himself in the one which is usually dominated by the Swiss. “Being the only one who was able to give the Swiss a run for their money was a brilliant feeling,” he explains. But Benni Schmidhofer is ambitious. Receiving a silver medal is like being the first loser if you ask him.

At the tender age of 19, Benni Schmidhofer was one of the youngest artisan cheesemakers in Austria. He did several internships and travelled all the way to Paraguay to work in a cheese factory. He also spent one year in Toggenburg in Switzerland, where he learnt from the Swiss mastermind of cheese and seven-time artisan cheesemaker champion Willi Schmid. So his chances aren’t all that bad – if the weather plays along and nothing else goes wrong. “For a cheese to turn out right, fifty percent depends on the milk,” Benni Schmidhofer explains. “And when the summer is difficult, artisan cheesemakers have to work twice as hard.”

Benni Schmidhofer leaves nothing to chance. All the work and effort involved has already paid off in the past. But now that he has a silver medal, he wants to achieve more.Benni Schmidhofer leaves nothing to chance. All the work and effort involved has already paid off in the past. But now that he has a silver medal, he wants to achieve more.

Think like milk

Back at the Holzalm alpine pasture, Benni has just started a procedure that he performs hundreds of times during a season. He slips into his high white wellington boots, wades through the low basin filled with chlorine water, washes his hands and disinfects them. Only then does the door to his empire open: the cheese factory. When you ask Benni Schmidhofer for the secret to a good cheese, he speaks a lot about his time with Willi Schmid whom he refers to as the “Mozart of Artisan Cheesemakers”. From him Benni learned how to “think like milk”. “Imagine you were milk: Would you like being pumped around for hours? I don’t think so.” The gentle interaction with the source product is the key to success. This is probably one of the reasons why Benni Schmidhofer started his work as an artisan cheesemaker at the Holzalm alpine pasture. In 2020, it welcomed a new cheese factory. Listening to Benni describe the technical nuances, it seems as if he was the lifeguard in a spa for milk. The cowshed and milking parlour are situated a bit higher than the cheese factory – and they are connected through an underground “slide”. “The milk reaches me here in the cheese factory within minutes – without any pumping whatsoever,” Benni Schmidhofer explains. Once the milk has arrived, the spa treatment continues. There’s gentle and steady heating, and two cheese vats which were specially built on top of two platforms so that the cheese curd can later flow down naturally into the moulds below. There’s a brine pool that’s some metres deep. The finished cheeses go for a dive into this brine pool, where Benni only ever uses specific salts.

The art of cheese making involves a great deal of passion.The art of cheese making involves a great deal of passion.

Just like with wine, you need the right mixture of beneficial bacteria for making cheese. They are important for the ripening process of the cheese and responsible for the flavour. In order to produce a certain taste, conventional cheese production relies on pre-produced starter cultures, which are usually available to buy in the form of a fine, white powder. Benni Schmidhofer, however, is a creative mind always searching for a new and better method. He gives his cheese its unique character by cultivating some of the bacteria cultures responsible for the flavour himself. He won’t reveal any more details. “That’s a secret to be kept by the cheesemaker,” he explains. The challenge: Months or sometimes even years can pass between the initial idea and the moment of truth – the moment when the cheese is cut. This long timeframe is also the reason why it’s so challenging to make raw milk cheese. Even the smallest mistake can have disastrous consequences for the cheese over the term of the ripening. If there are, for example, too many “wild” bacteria in the milk, off-flavours arise and the cheese develops cracks and holes. As a cheesemaker, it’s therefore not enough to have just one good day. From the moment the milk leaves the cow’s udder to the point in time when the cheese has finished ripening, you have to work meticulously for cheesemaking to be successful. That’s also why team spirit is so important to Benni when making cheese. “You can be the best cheesemaker in the world, but if the work at the milking parlour is not neat and clean, the cheese won’t turn out right,” he explains. 18-year-old apprentice Anton supports Benni in the cheese factory at the Holzalm alpine pasture. Simon and Florian, both in their early 20s, take care of the cows and milk them. They’re probably the youngest team competing in Galtür.

On the morning of the day that Benni is making the cheese for Galtür, he starts his work in the cheese factory at 5:00, just like any other day. He smells the freshly drawn milk. Then he tries to identify the individual flavours and combine his cheese bacteria cultures accordingly. As soon as the milk reaches 42 degrees in the copper vat, his “company” – as Benni calls his cheese cultures – can get started. A thick foam is formed on the milk’s surface. This is the sign for Benni that he has done everything right up to this point. But is that enough? “A cheese is just like a human being,” he explains. “A human being might have good and bad days – and that’s also the case for cheese. On some days it might not taste so good and then a month later it could suddenly be the best.” So Benni will have to wait for a few months to find out whether his cheese making today was successful.

Never without his team: Good teamwork is the foundation for producing high-quality cheese.Never without his team: Good teamwork is the foundation for producing high-quality cheese.

The moment everyone has been waiting for

Benni is not present when the Holzalm cheese is cut for the first time. 106 alpine pastures have registered 249 cheeses. The examination takes place behind closed doors. The Holzalm is competing with one cheese in each of the following categories: old and young mountain cheese, semi-hard cheese with two different fat contents and cheese with herbs.

By 20:30, the moment everyone has been waiting for is approaching. At the Silvretta sports and culture centre, the brass band “Men in Blech” (German for “Men in Brass”) is playing. But the atmosphere is not so relaxed. The cheesemakers are sliding around on the benches nervously, waiting impatiently for the results to be announced. Then, the first category which the Holzalm took part in is called up: cheese with herbs. The host announces that there are no bronze medals this year. Instead, there are five silver medals. But the Holzalm is not named. When their name is finally announced and they realise that they have won a gold medal, the whole table in the last row explodes with joy. They have been working for months towards this success, working meticulously on the cheese, nourishing and cherishing it – always well aware that carelessness during the production process can ruin the end product. At the end of the evening, the Holzalm leaves with two gold, one silver and one bronze medal. The next day, Benni, Anton, Florian and Simon will already be back at the alpine pasture. The cows have already returned to the valley, but the cheese factory requires a deep clean and has to be winterproofed. Each and every one of them knows: If you work sloppily because of a hangover after celebrating the awards, you risk ruining your chances at the International Mountain Cheese Olympics the following year.

After the International Mountain Cheese Olympics comes… the next International Mountain Cheese Olympics! The work for next year is already well under way.After the International Mountain Cheese Olympics comes… the next International Mountain Cheese Olympics! The work for next year is already well under way.

Wolfgang Westermeier rides to the office every morning. On the weekends he likes nothing more than trying out new sports in the mountains – from hot-balloon rides in winter to trailrunning races in summer.

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