Heidi and Her Cheese
A tale of a kitchen in the mountains....
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“The kettle soon began to boil, and meanwhile, the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow color on each side. Heidi watched all that was going on with eager curiosity.
Then he brought her a large slice of bread and a piece of the golden cheese and told her to eat. After which he went and sat down on the corner of the table and began his own meal. Heidi lifted the bowl with both hands and drank without pause till it was empty, for the thirst of all her long hot journey had returned upon her. Then she drew a deep breath--in the eagerness of her thirst she had not stopped to breathe--and put down the bowl.
"Was the milk nice?" asked her grandfather.
"I never drank any so good before," answered Heidi.
"Then you must have some more," and the old man filled her bowl again to the brim and set it before the child, who was now hungrily beginning her bread having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was soft as butter; the two together tasted deliciously, and the child looked the picture of content as she sat eating, and at intervals taking further draughts of milk.”
From Heidi’s first meal with Alm Uncle onwards, cheese and its eating catalyse the bonding process, integrating human souls with therapeutic mountain spaces and the creatures that depend on them. The goats are turned out to pasture to graze on medicinal herbs and juicy, sweet grass. (These pastures can be home to more than 150 different types of grasses and herbs.) Each goat has its own personality; they may be livestock, but they are not an amorphous mass. Turk is an aggressive goat with big horns that all the others are afraid of, except for the ‘“slender and nimble” Greenfinch who stands her ground. A little white goat called Snowflake misses her mother, who was recently sold. "The prettiest of all the goats are Little Swan and Little Bear," says Heidi to Peter, the goatherd. "Yes, I know they are," was the answer. "Alm-Uncle brushes them down and washes them and gives them salt, and he has the nicest shed for them."
The milk they yield is fed to Heidi and to Clara, her companion from Frankfurt, who grows fat and rosy-cheeked until, one day, she learns to walk again. Heidi regains her old spirit because, in the way that pre-eclampsia is cured only by the delivery of the baby, acute homesickness is only truly cured by going home. Cause and effect are clearly-drawn: the natural world and its gifts are the true medicine.
Yet the deceptively-simple Alpine life led by Johanna Spyri’s Heidi seems like an unattainable fantasy to the adult me, despite an increasingly eco-conscious way of life. Aged ten, I was largely oblivious to the hardships endured by an Alpine goat farmer as I romanticised Heidi’s world. I begged for a straw and hay-filled mattress that would smell clean and sweet. I pretended the rooks circling the abandoned pot kilns near my grandparent’s house were eagles. Long trudges uphill, red-faced and hot towards a new life in the mountains where one might play with goats, meet grannies with no teeth, and only attend school in the winter sounded brilliant. (In reality, I detested the cold.) I wanted to throw my town clothes off the side of a mountain and watch the Alps turn red, then purple, at sunset. But, most of all, I longed to make the acquaintance of a grumpy old man who might feed me with large pieces of fire-toasted cheese. I had a grandpa, but he wasn’t grumpy, and there were no open flames to sit and cook by; his house had only a coal-fired boiler and a gas fire. But he did fashion me a pillow stuffed with the hay I usually fed to my rabbits. It was sweetly-scented and scratchy, and the reality did not live up to my fantasies. I didn’t like milk either, so I skated over that bit of the story; there are limits, after all.
I was not the only one with such fantasies. When writer Sreemoyee Piu Kundu was a young girl, she looked forward to visits by the widowed uncle of her mother, a man they referred to as Chabi Dadu. He asked her if she had read Heidi. She hadn’t.
“Have you ever tasted cheese?’ Chabi Dadu said, curling up his nose.
‘Cheese,’ I murmured, never having heard of, let alone tasted it.
It had been his dream to travel to Europe with his wife, he added, telling me how cheese always reminded him of snow melting over tall mountain tops.
As he told me Heidi’s story, Spyri’s periodic descriptions of melting Raclette cheese over a fire were enough to transport me to a blissful, imaginary world of my own, where like Heidi, I too was being brought up by my ageing grandparents.”
The very next day saw Sreemoyee travel to one of Kolkatta’s bustling markets in search of cheese which she bought and saved for Chabi Dadu’s next visit. Periodically she would take it out to sniff. “The following Sunday, Chabi Dadu never came. I waited all day for him, listlessly. Hanging on to an unfinished story, and an uneaten block of cheese.” Sreemoyee’s separation from her much-loved older relative is more permanent than Heidi’s when the latter was taken away from her Alm Uncle’s home and sent to Frankfurt to be a companion to Clara. “The next week, Ma bought me Heidi. “It was his last gift,” she wiped her eyes.”
Spyri’s cheese descriptions are unparalleled, even though it is unclear what kind of cheese she is referring to. Alm Uncle made his own from goat milk, so he might have served Heidi a hard, full-fat goat cheese that would puff into a golden, molten crust when held over a fierce heat- but we cannot be sure. Maybe Uncle Alm traded his dairy produce in the village for other cheese, but we cannot assume this either.
Spyri is not the only Switzerland-based author to not name the local cheeses mentioned in her novel. In 1812, Dr H. Schiner referred to a tradition in the region of Val d'Anniviers, where feasts are bookmarked by a dish of roasted cheese (fromage rôti). Travel writer Victor Tissot, the author of La Suisse Inconnue, tells us of evenings in the Val d'Anniviers and the practice of transhumance (people and livestock moving together with the seasons). These are the warmer months, and the animals are grazing high in the Alps at more than 7000 feet up: “some shepherds sit ... around a fire and keep watch over a quarter cheese round which they have placed over the heat. As soon as the cheese begins to melt, one of them takes a knife, scrapes a slice of molten cheese from the round and spreads it onto a piece of bread.”
Heidi may be Johanna Spyri’s best-known character but the author published over 50 literary works. It seems fitting that we don’t know more about the cheese eaten by Heidi because, despite Spyri being one of the most widely read and translated Swiss authors, little is known about her either. As for the fantasy of living closer to the land, in the west this has been reframed as aspirational rather than something from which we seek to escape. I prefer my adult, urban life though. So, while there may not be an Alpine valley outside the front door, I can take a clasp knife, cut a thick slice of primrose-coloured cheese, and toast it under the grill or over a fire until it blisters and lets down its fat. And at that moment, my inner Heidi is released without any requirement for me to freeze half to death in a hayloft, albeit a sweetly-scented one.
Notes and reading:
EDIT: a very kind reader posted a link in the replies under this post to a London-based shop selling a variety of Swiss cheeses online. Find them here.
A comprehensive guide to Swiss-published cookbooks.
Alpine Cooking: Recipes and Stories from Europe's Grand Mountaintops by Meredith Erickson. It’s a bit ‘coffee table’, but it has useful recipes. The kind of book you might read if another Beast From the East comes along.
Swiss Bread: A Culinary Journey of Switzerland in 42 Sweet and Savory Recipes: A Culinary Journey with 42 Sweet and Savory Recipes by Heddi Nieuwsma has over 200 recipes for bread and meals to go with it (including cheese!)
Treat yourself to a subscription to Cheese Magazine.
Since the Iron Age, the Swiss have made cheese, writes Danny Lewis for The Smithsonian.
The cheese farmers and cheese huts of Switzerland, via Cheeseunderground.
During Ben Gunn’s long years on Treasure Island, he dreamed of cheese. "Marooned three years agone," he continued, "and lived on goats since then, and berries, and oysters. Wherever a man is, says I, a man can do for himself. But, mate, my heart is sore for Christian diet. You mightn't happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? No? Well, many's the long night I've dreamed of cheese--toasted, mostly--and woke up again, and here I were." It’s directly referred to in Bladerunner 2049 when Deckard meets Joe (KD6.3-7) after being stranded in Las Vegas. "Mightn't happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now, would you boy"?” he asks.
In 1906, a short film, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, was developed from a comic strip of the same name by American cartoonist Winsor McCay which began in 1904.
Rebecca May Johnson on the composition of meals (featuring bread and cheese).
Cheese is a satirical comic tale of the complex business world through the prism of Edam by Willem Elsschot.
Here’s a book made from slices of cheese. And an exasperated tweet:
Erika Kubick points out the spiritual concepts of sex and death seen through cheese in her book and website, Cheese Sex Death. “It’s resurrection through delicious rot—an acquired taste that is specific to the individual cultures that have historically relied on these fermented foods.” Animals only give milk when they mate and produce young, and controlled rot (which we call ‘maturation’) is part of the natural death process.
There is a Heidi museum! (Of course, there is.) Cindy Ross visited back in 2001. And Heidi branded dairy products, too, although the company angered the Swiss by shooting their commercial in New Zealand.
A quick search shows that Raclette is the top suggestion for the cheese eaten by Heidi because of its excellent melting ability even though it is not made from goats milk. (Raclette is also a Swiss dish originating in Wallis, where cheese is melted over a fire then ‘scraped’ over potatoes, meat and bread.) In French-Swiss (Walliserdialekt), ‘to scrape’ translates to ‘racler’, and you’ll find references to raclette dating back to 1291. Travel back in time to German-speaking Switzerland, and you’ll find the same dish, only it was called Bratchäs (“roasted cheese”). In Switzerland, Tête de Moine (‘monk’s head’) is a cylindrical, semi-hard Swiss cheese made from cow’s milk which is scraped, using a tool called a girolle, designed to release the cheese’s aromas as its surface comes into contact with air. Liz Thorpe claims that goats cheese in Switzerland is not typical. “The vast majority of cheeses made in Switzerland are made of cow's milk.” It's really unusual to find a sheep's or goat's milk cheese—they exist, but very, very nominally. “ Despite the rich pastures that Uncle Alm’s goats live on, Thorpe states, “You tend to find goats and sheep in more marginal climates, places that are really hot and dry, places that don't grow grass so well.”
Jenny Linford’s piece on covid and the crisis in British cheese, which unfolded when orders collapsed, went viral and became a call to arms. As a result, Linford went on to front a series of Food FM podcasts about cheese, sponsored by Peter’s Yard. You can find them here. (Disclosure: I am on one of them, but don’t let that deter you. )
Of course, Playmobil has Heidi-themed playsets. I’d have been all over this as a kid.