Story: From the haymaking marathon to the exquisite cheese

What fuels it all? Passion

This creamy food incorporates the flavours of the mountain combined with hard work and passion. These are the secret ingredients of Ticino’s cheeses.

Piora, Sonogno, Valmaggia, Carì. As well as locations, these are also the names of tasty cheeses. There’s one to suit all tastes in Ticino. Cow’s or goat’s cheese, soft-ripened cheese, alpine cheese: it would be amazing to try them all, but impossible as there are so many. Let’s set out for the sunny valley that is home to Doris, a young cheesemaker.

THE CHARACTER

Doris Martinali, cheesemaker

Doris Martinali, cheesemaker
As soon as they arrive at the alpine pasture the cows have to get used to grazing the grass. It’s more difficult than hay.

Taking a round of cheese from the cellar, placing it on the table, stroking it and then deciding where to insert the knife. It’s a bit difficult to cut into, but once it’s open it will release a deliciously mouthwatering aroma.

Doris Martinali, age 22, from Largario in the Blenio Valley, is well aware of this. She completed a three-year farming apprenticeship in the Canton of Zurich and now runs her family farm. She makes crenga, the soft-ripened cheese typical of the region. The small rounds of this young cheese made from cow’s milk have a thin grey rind around a soft and creamy core.

From September to June, her cows occupy a shed in Largario and Doris makes around 1,900 kg of crenga! However, in summer the animals go up to the alpine pasture, grazing the delicate mountain grass in the company of another 220 cows. In autumn they come back down to the plain, together with the delicious rounds of Lucomagno Segno, an exquisite cheese made up near the peaks.

The alarm rings at 4.45. A mountain farmer’s life is not easy. The cows are foddered and quiet at dawn, then they’re brought out of the shed and milked. In summer there’s hay to be made. There’s always so much to do every day, work to be planned, invoices and admin to be completed, new ideas and sales points to come up with. “Rhythm is fundamental,” says Doris with a beautiful smile.

You have to have passion in this line of work, otherwise you simply can’t make so many sacrifices.

She’s young, friendly and cheerful, but also decisive, knowing exactly what she wants. Doris and her sister Marina grew up on their parents’ farm and a love of the mountains, livestock and the land forms part of their DNA. You can see it in Doris’s eyes, words, gestures, the passion that she conveys and... in a tattoo! The face of Karin, one of her cows, features on Doris’s shoulder: “Another cow is actually my favourite, but she’s definitely the prettiest.”

They’re Braunvieh cows, a sturdy medium breed with a brown hide and a darker muzzle and hooves. This native breed used to be very widespread on the Swiss mountains, but was later replaced by other more productive breeds, albeit less suited to the harsh mountain winters.

However, Doris’s cows with their beautiful horns and a cow bell are symbolic of the Alps. Ready for a selfie?

The mountain landscape, with its green pastures alternating with woods, makes the scenery in Ticino truly unique. It’s beautiful to see and immortalise, but first and foremost it has a fundamental role to play: this is where hay is made, an invaluable winter food for livestock. From May to September, Doris and her family perform an activity well-known to mountain farmers: the haymaking marathon. They spend several weeks cutting numerous pastures situated between 500 and 1,700 m a.s.l. They go over every plot two or three times and good weather is essential, otherwise the hay is ruined. It’s a real marathon.

Without the friendly and rather sleepy-looking cows grazing placidly there would be no cheese.

And without Doris in her dairy, who transforms the milk into that tasty round every two days, we wouldn’t be able to try this mountain speciality. 

Pro tip
There are numerous alpine pastures in Ticino and even more delicious cheeses. Piora (PDO) is certainly one of the most famous.
Her small family-run farm and guesthouse in Largario also produces milk, veal, lamb and sausages of various kinds.
“Autumn Festival and Cheese Market”: Cheeses from all over Ticino can be savoured in Bellinzona in October.

You have to take the milk temperature, the air humidity, the salt level and lots of other variables into account to make a good cheese, as they can all affect its flavour. “I had to do lots of experiments before finding the perfect formula.”

We ask her how she feels when people appreciate a cheese she’s made with her own hands. “I find it very satisfying, but criticism is even more important for me, so that I can keep improving.” Her ambitious spirit is clear to see.

“The assistants who’ve worked on the family farm over the years have included people who loved running in the mountains or triathlons, but even they struggled to keep up with us.” Resilience and passion are fundamental in this line of work, “otherwise you simply can’t make so many sacrifices.” And so how does Doris recharge her batteries? “I try to make sure I keep one week free a year to go away, relax and, above all, keep an open mind.” This is a very important aspect that is immediately apparent when talking to Doris about her desire to discover and learn more about other farms, to come up with new ideas and develop projects for improving her business.

There’s nothing more to be said about it: Doris is a dreamer with her feet firmly on the ground.

“The alarm rings at 4.45. A mountain farmer’s life is not easy.”

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